Perhaps you've fallen out of love with your practice. You're feeling too busy to sit down for a daily dwell, or your mind just feels so distracted, that it simply won't be calmed and it feels painful to even try. Perhaps you're one of those people who are so used to screen activity, that the ability to even sit down with deep thought has become near-impossible. It feels easier to just pick up the phone.
This has happened to me quite a lot in my practice, so I'm writing this blog as a way to remind myself of what my teachers have told me along the way. Here are five of their nuggets:
1. Breathe out the busyness
When we sit down to meditate, it's a good idea to spend some time, maybe five or ten minutes at the start, to calm our mind. My teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso mentions this in a few of his books, and it's something I often find myself whipping past and forgetting to do. He tells us that we can practice black and white breathing for a while as soon as we sit down.
To do this we imagine that all our mental busyness and distractions take the form of dark smoke which we mentally exhale. We imagine it leaving through our nostrils and dissolving into the distance. We can do this for a while, then start to imagine that when we inhale, we are breathing in radiant, white light, and imagine it's filling our heart center, cleansing and purifying the mind. This is a really effective way to transition out of our normal busyness, and into a new place of possibility. It's also a great way to relax.
2. Set a good intention
Another thing my teacher recommends, with any activity in our lives but particularly with meditation, is to start with a good intention. This is why we have Prayers for Meditation in the Kadampa tradition, where we cultivate some pretty amazing states of mind with which to meditate. But sometimes even those prayers can become so familiar, that we forget the meaning behind the words. We can spend a minute or two, once our mind is calmed a little, to generate a genuine wish, "May this meditation benefit both myself and all living beings." We focus on this big wish, to benefit all beings.
3. Just put in the time
Now we come to the meditation itself, where we contemplate a virtuous object with our mind. We allow ourselves a space of time, say 10 or 20 minutes, and we begin by bringing the meditation object to mind. This is what all of Geshe Kelsang's books teach, the amazing states of mind that are the path to enlightenment itself.
Perhaps for example we are meditating on wishing love. We use some lines of reasoning to cause that mind of love to actually arise, for example, we bring to mind a family member or loved one who may be suffering. We imagine how life looks and feels from their perspective, and we notice deeply their fears and worries. Then, from this awareness, we cultivate a wish in our heart for them to be free from this pain and experience happiness. This is the mind of pure love: the wish for others to be happy. The moment we feel this love or an insight of it arises, we move into placement meditation. We become very still. We shift from a mind that is moving and thinking, to a mind that is as still as a Maine lake at dawn.
Learning how to transition from that thinking phase of meditation, or "analytical meditation" as my teacher calls it, to "placement meditation", which is a state of stillness where we are holding the object single-pointedly, is something that takes real skill.
In June of this year, I traveled down to Glen Spey, New York, to the Kadampa Meditation Center New York, where I received wonderful advice on this. KMC NY is the location of the U.S. World Peace Temple (pictured above). It's sort of like our mother center for all the Kadampa Buddhists in America and anyone else who happens to walk into its 80 acres of woodlands.
I was attending a silent meditation retreat for a week. The retreat was being led by Gen Kelsang Samten, the resident teacher who has spent many years in retreat. During this retreat, he spoke about the nature of concentration, which is that thing that occurs when the object of meditation manifests in our mind, say you get an insight or feeling of love, and now your task is to focus on it single pointedly.
As Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes in How to Understand the Mind: "The definition of concentration is a mental factor that makes its primary mind remain on its object single-pointedly... The main function of virtuous concentration is to make the mind peaceful."
This is often where we can struggle in meditation—because we can find it really hard to just stay with that object. It's like we see it, then our mind gallops off to something else. And we start to feel bad, we judge ourself and decide that we can't meditate.
Gen Samten said something very useful about this. He first reminded us that meditation takes place in our heart. When we're head-centered, there is a separation from the object. In the heart however, we are able to absorb into the object itself—and that is what concentration is, a state of "absorbtion". He explained that we then use our mindfulness to not move from that state of absorbtion. If we move, he said, we are forgetting the object. If we remain with a still mind, dwelling with the insight moment-by-moment, we are remembering the object.
5. Cultivate a love for balance
Which brings me to what Gen Samten said next (according to my scrawled notes—and I deeply apologize to him because I am paraphrasing here and nothing will be as clear as how he originally said it.) Anyway, how do we stay with that stillness?
He then talked about how when we think of effort in meditation, we often think of it as pushing. We push harder when we lose the object. This idea of pushing, he said, is not very helpful. He said instead, we can "cultivate a great love of being in a state of balance in the mind", of being not too tight, not too loose as we hold that object. If we find we've dropped the object, out of love we bring our mind back to holding it again in a state of balance.
I adored this advice. It was so light, so gentle, and so very kind. Let it be about loving the practice.
So often, we do the very opposite. We push, and fight with our distractions, and our mind gets even more turbulent. But instead, here we are being advised to just settle down, to develop a love for being settled and balanced in the mind, and simply stay in that joyful space. Develop a love for the process itself, rather than the result, and it will bring us back to our cushion again and again.
I could go on here. There are so many other things that help, such as meditating with a group, being led in person by a teacher, and receiving blessings. If you have any thoughts, please share in the comments!