It’s All in Your Mind
The mind is where we live, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, it is how we experience things. Through the practice of meditation, we see past the superficial waves of discursiveness and discover the noble qualities that are the true nature of mind.
Whether we are on the busy streets of New York or in the solitude of a mountain cave in Nepal, our happiness and contentment are completely in our own hands. Sitting meditation enables us to rest our mind in a present and cheerful way. At the base of that experience is a quality of happiness, which is not a sense of giddiness, but of relaxation. Wherever we are, life is going to be coming at us. But if we use our lives as an opportunity to develop and enhance our mind, we will always be able to acknowledge that we are in a precious situation.
When we sit, we make a direct relationship to the source of happiness, this wish-fulfilling jewel, the mind itself. Meditation gives us the ability to unpack the box in which the jewel is hidden. In effect, we’re taking time out from our busyness to say, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be right here.” That is a profound step, because it means we’re beginning to look at the truth and to trust it.
Our mind goes through a lot in the course of a day. Generally, our thoughts cycle between positive and negative. Either we’re thinking about what upsets us or makes us anxious, or we’re riding the wave of what inspires us and reminds of us of good things. If we don’t work with the mind, the pattern tends to shift toward more disturbing thoughts and emotions. We get consumed by the negativity of the mind—fear and regret, anger and desire. When these thoughts and emotions come up, they completely obscure us and we’re trapped by them.
By working with the mind in meditation, we learn to sit and watch all the ups and downs come and go like clouds in the sky. In the process, we gain more strength in terms of our clarity, insight, and wisdom. These are noble qualities that we all possess. In meditation we begin to recognize them. They are the lessons we learn from watching our discursiveness. But to develop those qualities takes more effort than just sitting on the cushion; we have to be proactive. If we don’t apply ourselves, nothing is going to happen.
Yes, it’s important to show up, to have the discipline to sit, but there is also the internal aspect of dealing with every thought, every emotion. That is how we learn that they are temporary. They are always arising, always falling away. We can look at our mind and try to figure out where the thoughts come from, but we’ll never actually find that moment. The point is to learn to relax, to learn not to be absorbed in our discursiveness, because once we’re lost in it, we can be lost in it for twenty minutes, half an hour, or twenty years. The mind is where we live. It is how we experience things. Whether we have a good day or a bad day really depends on our experience of the mind.
Sitting meditation gives us the confidence to acknowledge our thoughts without being hooked by them. We have the teachings and techniques to form the mind into something that is useful and pleasant. In terms of a spiritual tradition, we can say that we are developing our mind’s potential to become buddha, to become awake. But in a a very practical way, this level of practice is helpful to anybody. If we’re going to live in this world we should at least have the ability to work with our mind. When we do yoga, for example, the more flexible and fluid our body becomes, the less of a nuisance it is. In meditation, we are putting the mind into a situation where it can become flexible, joyous, and less of a problem. It’s that simple.
To practice successfully requires that we hold a view of what our mind really is. The idea I like to use is basic goodness. What are the aspects of basic goodness? There’s compassion, virtue, wisdom, and other noble qualities. We meditate in order to become familiar with that good mind. Sometimes our meditation is fun; at other times, it can be boring. But overall, if we’re holding this view and applying the technique, meditation makes us stronger. We’re learning what the mind is and stabilizing ourselves in that reality. This ability gives us a very powerful tool.
Our mind is always becoming familiar with something. Most of the time we’re becoming familiar with things that ultimately have little relevance to us. We get familiar with the fantasy of food, a relationship, or a holiday. Of course we may have to pay the rent—there are always concerns on which our mind can chew—but in our daily meditation, we practice unloading those concerns from our mind and experiencing the precious opportunity to become familiar with something more meaningful.
One way to ground ourselves in the view is to feel fortunate that we have the time and technique to meditate. We can say to ourselves, “I feel very fortunate to be able to follow my breath because, number one, I have a breath.” It’s not necessarily guaranteed. For us to sit here and not appreciate what’s going on is ignorance, because we’re taking our lives for granted.
What happens when we feel fortunate? Inspiration is born, and it grows. Without inspiration, we don’t have any reason to return to the breath. Sitting is just an exercise. It’s like working in a factory: we’re just putting in the time until we can go home. Our noble qualities are not increasing. Without the view, our meditation is like a rock at the bottom of a lake. What happens to a rock at the bottom of the lake? No matter how much time passes, nothing happens. In a hundred years, it will still be a rock at the bottom of the lake.
Even though our understanding may be small, we should have confidence that the practice of sitting in this way and placing our mind on the breath is special. It’s been handed down by people such as the Tibetan yogi Milarepa. He did not leave us the message that“Meditation’s not really worth it,” or “I looked in my mind and there’s nothing really there, but it’s a great way to lose weight.” He didn’t say that at all. Rather, he wrote 100,000 spontaneous songs that celebrate the basic goodness of our mind and the precious opportunity we have to develop our noble qualities. These are real. As our mind sticks with them, our level of prajna, or intelligence, rises.
When we meditate, we’re not idly passing time. In following the breath and learning to deal with our thoughts, we’re laying the foundation for a shift in attitude that has the power to change our lives in a truly meaningful way. There’s a lot of darkness and aggression in our world. Developing our noble qualities has an immediate effect on ourselves and others. When we apply ourselves in practice, we’re not only doing something very present; we’re also creating the conditions for how our lives can move forward.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is spiritual director of Shambhala, an international network of meditation and retreat centers. He is the author of Turning Your Mind into an Ally and Ruling Your World.