“The main cause of my happiness, the main cause of my suffering, is in my mind.” -Venerable Robina Courtin
One of the great things about exploring meditation practice is that there is not one single path or accepted technique to follow. There are really an infinite number of ways to practice working with the mind. Some of the most recognizable modalities include breath awareness (or Shamatha practice), body mindfulness, mantra practice and chanting. But there are numerous other styles that sometimes receive less attention, including insight (also known as Vipassana meditation), visualization practices, loving kindness (or Metta meditation), and walking meditation as well as thousands of individually developed personal techniques that help practitioners in many different cultures and traditions work with their minds. The beauty of this is that not only is there so much to potentially explore, but also that there really is something for as many different interests as there are meditators!
Over the last few weeks here in New York, a visiting Buddhist spiritual teacher has been giving talks on the various benefits and gifts that meditation practice can provide. Venerable Robina Courtin is a scholar and nun in the Tibetan Buddhist Gelugpa lineage, the same tradition from which The Dalai Lama derives. While the teachings of this tradition can be particularly helpful to those interested in pursuing Tibetan Buddhist spirituality, much of the wisdom and insights are also very accessible and informative to anyone who may have an interest more generally in meditation and practices of mindfulness.
Venerable Robina spoke about how the fundamental essence of meditation in any practice is basically to work with the mind. In this sense it is about discovery and exploration of the different qualities of awareness and attention. But it is also about cultivating calmness and taking refuge from the constant chattering of consciousness that often dominates our waking hours.
In modern society, we are continuously bombarded by different media and cultural signals that say directly or indirectly we need more things, we need to do more, achieve greater prestige, look better, have a bigger home, better position at work or different career. And internally as humans we are often subject to a continuous narrative that informs us we are not good enough, don’t have enough, we don’t measure up to some ultimate standard. The end result of all of these internal and external messages is one where peace of mind can become neglected altogether in the pursuit of some gold standard of “success” and perfection.
This is not to say that the drive towards self-improvement is inherently negative. Indeed, setting goals and evaluating our progress are the cornerstones for growth in so many different arenas. But the problem is that our minds can become so wrapped up in the compulsion to fill some perceived insufficiency that we may rarely break free from the relentless grip. We can become trapped in a hamster wheel of thoughts and ruminations with very little space to just experience presence with the world and with ourselves.
One of the key themes that the Tibetan meditation tradition teaches is that we can develop an alliance with our minds. This is perhaps the greatest universal gift that any meditation practice offers: The possibility of recognizing when our stream of consciousness has too tight of a grip on our internal world, and the incredible beauty of the mind when we practice letting go. Even through the simplest technique of breath awareness, we can see how profoundly spacious our minds really are when we look into the vastness between the thoughts.
Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the great mindfulness teachers embraced by both The East and The West, suggests a remarkably simple yet infinitely powerful technique for breathing practice. Sitting quietly, bring your attention to the breath. Silently say to yourself as you notice the inhalation, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.” As you exhale, quietly say to yourself, “Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” And so on. The brilliance of this technique is that it can be done even in just two minute intervals no matter where you may be—or of course much longer and more formally when available and desired.
Ultimately, the world of meditation practice offers us an invitation to experience our minds in different and exceptional ways. One of the great analogies sometimes used is that the mind, if we allow ourselves to truly see it, is luminous and open like the sky. By breaking free from ordinary patterns of thinking, we can glimpse this infinite sky of our internal world and all the wonder that is really there.
*For more information about Venerable Robina and other teachers, see the website www.shantidevameditation.org.
Written by Gabriel Woodhouse for bodono.
Gabriel Woodhouse is one of the teachers at Three Jewels which offers free meditation classes every weekday morning and on Friday evenings. Three Jewels functions as a Meditation, Yoga, Dharma, and Outreach Center for the community. More info at: threejewels.org