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Shambhala Sun | May 2010
You'll find this article on page 21 of the magazine.

Time to Be Pragmatic

Intention is what sets our direction in life, and meditation is the way to hone it. But as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says, we need to be realistic about how high to set the bar for ourselves.

As the great Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi said, “We are completely perfect, but we need a minor adjustment.” We have everything we need, but we have to hone it. Meditation is that honing process. What we are honing is our intention.

Meditation is not a recess or a timeout. It’s a deepening and strengthening of the mind, which affects our whole life. In our body we have muscles and bones we can train and strengthen, even when we’re out of shape. In the same way, there is inherent strength, clarity, and stability in the mind, and meditation is a way to bring that out.

We think our conventional mind is the same as it was yesterday, but like everything else, it is changing all the time. It is porous, like tofu. It absorbs the quality of its environment—the energy, concepts, and thoughts—so we need to surround it with the kind of environment and intention we want to develop.

There are many things happening all around us—traffic and weather, for example—that we can’t control. But to a certain degree, we can control our own intention and involvement. The meditation period is the time of the day when we train ourselves in that. We take our mind and develop it the way we want, setting our intention and deepening it.

We first discover that we can train the mind to be very still and focused, which is obviously helpful in terms of daily activities. Going deeper, we see that no matter what we are doing, our mind is always engaged in meditation. We’ve been training it well—it’s completely accustomed to particular habits. We also have karmic predispositions—anger, desire, or procrastination—and left to its own devices, the mind won’t shift from these patterns. But within any particular pattern, there’s a lot of room to improve. Meditation gives us the tools to direct the mind toward themes that we wish to develop. 

When we have a picture of what we want to do, that’s intention. That picture allows us to make progress as we meditate. For example, if we want to have more compassion, generosity, or flexibility, if we want to be a better listener, or to be less reactive at work, we can train those aspects of our mind. So we have to ask ourselves, What is it I want to do with my mind?

Meditation is like walking up a mountain: you have to know where you’re going, stay on the trail, and put one foot after the other. If you hop on one leg, you’ll go in a circle. It’s the same with the mind: if you don’t have a way to work with it, it’s going to go in a circle.

To train the mind, first we have to get a handle on it. We are thinking all the time. If we observe that thinking process for a second, we’ll see that it is triggered by the five sense faculties: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. We smell something or we see something, and we’re distracted.

It’s hard to train the mind by using just the five sense consciousnesses—just smelling or just tasting, for example. We need to get hold of the discursive mind itself, the consciousness of thoughts, memories, and dreams. It’s being pulled in a lot of different directions, so we need a technique to stabilize it.

Training the mind is dependent upon the body. We reduce the body’s activity to focus the mind, so posture is very important. Then we use the breath, which is stable and consistent, as a focus for our intention. Joining our mind with the breath in meditation is often compared to the horse and the rider. The horse is the breath and the rider is the mind. We want those elements to be in continual contact.

As we focus on the breath, thoughts come, and we see how they pull us away from our intention. Thoughts themselves are neither good nor bad—that’s not the issue. For example, you could sit on a park bench and get angrier and angrier at a friend, and that would be your meditation, or absorption: “He did this and he did that, and blah blah blah.” You’d have fostered all the conditions to go yell at that person, which would be your postmeditation.

Meditation consists of mindfulness and awareness. Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the breathing; awareness is knowing what’s happening. With these two activities, we’re able to focus.

We have to be pragmatic about our practice. The mind is powerful. After racing around all day, it’s hard to follow through with the intention, “I’m going to stabilize my mind for one whole hour.” Instead, at the beginning of our session, we take the attitude, “Now I am going to focus.” Focus will bring us to moments of stillness and deepening, which profoundly affect the mind.

In the process, thoughts come, and we see how they affect our focusing. Small thoughts—“I’m cold, I’m hot, my back hurts”—are generally not a problem. But big discursive thoughts—we have to be aware of those. When we suddenly find ourselves at the beach or fantasizing about lunch, we don’t judge those thoughts as good or bad; we just say, “I’m losing my mind to these thoughts. It’s not what I want to be doing right now.”

Out of a one-hour period of sitting, if we have five minutes of absorption, that is very good. I’m a big believer in “Get what you can.” Even thirty seconds of absorption is helpful in training the mind. Those periods will increase as we remember our intention and return our focus to the breath.

The breath is here. It’s consistent. Staying on the breath, the mind becomes still. Stillness allows for rest and revitalization. The mind struggles less and finds its own strength. With mindfulness and awareness, we keep coming back to the breath, and we experience periods of absorption. That deep stillness begins to permeate our mind. It becomes more familiar, and its influence starts to show up in our life.

This is called attainment. What do we attain? Experiencing this stillness, we get a handle on the mind. When our mind has become familiar with stillness in meditation, in postmeditation we can look at the mind without judgment and see how it is. We can deal with it: “I’m very jealous. What can I do to work on that?” Without those moments of absorption, however, we don’t deepen, and it’s hard to change the course of our mind’s habits.

With practice, we have the freedom to engage in thoughts or not. Now we can even consider our intention in a bigger way. First, what are the principles by which we want to gauge our life? We could say, “In general I want to become more understanding, cheerful, and strong; that’s the direction I want to go.” We can also have a daily check-in: “What am I highlighting today? Today I would like to be more forgiving.” And we can do it. When we have strong purpose and intention, we have more energy. Our body and mind are synchronized, which gives us the power to use our life expediently and well.

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