Chogyam Trungpa's magnum opus is a three volume survey of Tantric Buddhism, divided into hinayana, mahayana, and vajrayana. The following is excerpted from Volume one detailing the Hinayana. Contained here is about the first half of his instructions on meditation contained therein.
From “The Path of Individual Liberation” by Chogyam Trungpa
SHAMATHA: THE PRACTICE OF MINDFULNESS
SHAMATHA is both simple and workable. We are not just retelling myths about what somebody did in the past. Just being there without preconceptions is possible. In fact, it is much simpler than having all kinds of adornments and paraphernalia. Mindfulness practice is not particularly religious; it is not even a practice. It is a natural behavior that one begins to develop in a very simple manner.
Shamatha PRACTICE is designed for the mendicant and for the simple life. Vipashyana is the basis for scholarly learning and the communicating of knowledge. Our greatest task in bringing Buddhism to the West is to try to make shamatha simplicity the basis of sophisticated prajna-activity. That could be our contribution to the teachings and to Buddha. If we could do that, we would not have dry professors or bleeding-heart yogis. Instead, precision, mindfulness, and simplicity would become the source of learning. The world may seem complicated, but it could not be complicated unless it had a pattern, and that pattern is simplicity.
I prefer to discuss shamatha practice from the point of view of the contemplative tradition, using instructions given by craftspeople rather than by theologians—instructions you can use on the spot. My conviction is that there is a need to go back to the great contemplative traditions and to the personal experiences they describe. I hope to follow the contemplative tradition of Jamgon Kongtrtul, so that shamatha practice becomes workable, or "practice-able," so to speak. I would like to make the discussion of shamatha as experiential as I can. Practice is a very personal experience.
The point of shamatha is to free ourselves from ill-birth or distortion We carry ourselves in the so-called ordinary world in a very distorted manner. These distortions range from large-scale emotional upheaval;. the crimes we commit, and the pain that wc cause other people, to simply being unaware of what is happening in our everyday life. We have become masters of distortion, wc have become unaware personalities but that doesn't mean we are stuck with that approach. As long as we can understand that, and as long as there is room for discipline, the practice of shamatha can change our state of being.
Shamatha is geared to the idea of freeing ourselves physically and psychologically from the three lower realms—the hell realm, the hungry ghost realm, and the animal realm-—by paying attention to what is happening with us both psychologically and physically. Meditation practice at the shamatha level is very definite: we go stcp-by-step, from the microscopic level to the cosmic level. Shamatha is important so that as we go further on the path into mahayana and vajrayana, we do not collect mahayana neuroses and distortions and vajrayana neuroses and distortions. Shamatha is necessary in order to make the starting point clear and clean.
Unless we are willing to commit ourselves to shamatha practice, there is no way out of ill-birth or distortion. So shamatha is very important. It is purification. Shamatha does not make metaphysical or philosophical demands on our intelligence; it is just being here in the present. In general, unless we are here—actually, fully, and truly here—we cannot do anything properly. We are bound to make mistakes. Not only are we bound to make mistakes, but we are bound to mess up our life.
Shamatha practice is based on the three principles of body, speech, and mind. We are developing mindfulness of physical experience; mindfulness of emotions, or speech; and mindfulness of discursive thoughts, or mind. By doing so, we are freeing ourselves from the lower realms.
Body is the most obvious and direct. It is related to the hell realm and anger. In the hell realm, physically you experience hot and cold temperatures, and psychologically you feel separateness between you and the other.
Speech is related to the hungry ghost realm and desire. Speech is like a wind that communicates between the phenomenal world and yourself. In the hungry ghost realm, speech is connected with hunger and the emotion of wanting something. It is related with ego's need for entertainment and continual occupation.
Mind is related to the animal realm and discursive thoughts. In the animal realm, mind is chattering and discursive. This realm is marked by stupidity: the mind is not open and you are in the dark. The three lower realms are bound by their own neuroses, and by our not wanting to relate with them but instead to get away.
At this stage, your understanding of the three lower realms does not have to be precise and clear, and you do not need to spend time sorting them out. The question is, how are you going to free yourself from those realms? The way to do that, always, is to sit and meditate, and through that to develop a state of awareness whether you are meditating or not. That is the only way to free yourself from those realms. You may have fanciful ideas about the transmutation of energies and making use of the manure of experience, but such ideas are premature. They are still concepts, rather than what you can do this very day, this very afternoon, right this moment.
Mindfulness is sometimes referred to as restful or relaxing, but this does not refer to the conventional concept of relaxation. It is not relaxing as in relaxing before you get hypnotized, or the relaxation you feel after intensive hatha yoga. In shamatha, relaxation means being without defense mechanisms, or if defense mechanisms arise, letting them go. Whenever you feel that you should be doing something to get yourself together, there is at the same time a defense mechanism, a quality of uneasiness. In shamatha, the idea is to go along with the uneasiness instead of trying to make everything smooth and ideal. You could use the uneasiness and irritation as part of the practice. But you don't sit on it too long; you just look at it and then let it go, look and let go. If you take the whole thing personally, it is not a problem, but if you take it as a larger threat, an impersonal cosmic plot, it becomes very complicated, and you cannot develop mindfulness of the here and now. However, if you let the defense mechanisms defend themselves rather than defend you, the defense mechanisms fall apart. If you are tense, for instance, let the tenseness be tense. Then tenseness has no substance. It becomes relaxation.
In Tibetan, the word for relaxation is bakpheppa. Bak means a kind of "sensory awareness feeling," a "twinkling in the nervous system," phep means "relaxed," and pa makes it a noun; so bakpheppa means the "relaxation of your quivering nervous system." That can only be done by relating with the tension itself. There is no other way. If you are trying to relax, you end up with so many reference points of relaxation that you cannot actually relax. It's like being on a vacation when you've got a television, a sauna, a swimming pool, a tennis court, and a restaurant; you have so many places to relax that you are too busy to really relax. In shamatha, relaxation is one-pointed. It is just to be, in a very simple manner.
In pure shamatha you are just being there constantly, haunted by your mindfulness. Mindfulness comes up as the constant sense that you are actually there. It could start in the context of the teachings, in connection with your own pain, or in connection with recollection. Mindfulness should be taking place all the time. On the whole, in order to understand buddhadbarma, you have to be there; otherwise, buddhadharma cannot be grasped. Being there does not mean holding back or sitting still. You could go along with what's happening and still be there. As an example, His Holiness the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, the supreme head of the Kagyii lineage, could be there with the audience—with businesspeoplc, politicians, scholars, and all kinds of people. He was always there, always present. When he blessed three thousand people lined up in San Francisco, it took almost two hours for everybody to go through. But as he blessed them individually, he was there for each person. You could do the same thing. It is possible. It's a question of attitude. With shamatha, you are there; you are always there.
Being there requires loosening up, but as you loosen up you discipline yourself more. So looseness and discipline operate simultaneously. Sometimes when you loosen up, you become silly or absurd, and when you hold back, you become spaced-out, noncommunicative, and statuelike. That is a problem. The idea of shamatha is that you can loosen up and be aware at the same time. That is what is called samyakshamatha. "complete," or perfect," mindfulness. It is not one-sided. In shamatha, you are present. At the same time, your mind becomes 50 transparent, so penetrating and loose, that it becomes like a sieve. You think you are pouring teachings into it. but end up with nothing at all. If the buddhadharma were a thcistic religion, based on the worship of a deity or savior, and if you thought you knew perfectly what you were doing, your mind would cease to be a sieve and instead become a cast-iron cauldron. That model seems very sympathetic, because one would like to have something very solid and definite to hold on to as opposed to becoming a sieve. But in the nontheistic tradition, your state of being becomes a sieve with which it is difficult to catch or to hold on to anything. Therefore, in order to understand the essence of the teachings, it is necessary to develop constant awareness. The development of awareness is based on simple mindfulness-practice. Whether you are sitting on your meditation cushion or not. awareness should take place constantly. In Tibetan contemplative traditions. I don't think anybody feels that they can take time off. There's no room for that. It is a blanket approach, full-time work, twenty-four hours a day. Post-meditation practice in Tibetan is jethop. Je means "after," and thop means receiving"; so jethop means "receiving after." In fact, a lot of teachers have said that it is much more important to experience jethop than to be too concentrated on formal sitting practice. Sitting practice provides a kind of anchor to start with, and in postmeditation that experience becomes real. So you don't just sit and then think you are finished. When you are done with your sitting practice, there is still the postmeditation experience.
On the whole, there are a lot of demands on students, as well as on the teacher, to be here, to be present. We should be present, not with a certain concept in mind, but simply being. We arc simply being here. It is much easier in theistic traditions, because you always have something to do. For instance, with the Prayer of the Heart in the Greek Orthodox tradition, you say the Jesus Prayer constantly until it begins to repeat itself so you are not lost. In the nontheistic tradition, it is much looser and more complicated, so in a sense it is more difficult. It is difficult to be here. but at the same time, not to be here is very difficult!
It is very important to try to develop your shamatha and to understand it. Shamatha is the point where you begin to behave like a buddha—a real one, not a fake one. Once this kind of unconditioned mindfulness happens, you are here and you are automatically sane. You do not need to try to do anything in particular. You are here, ready for anything the other yanas might suggest or demand. It is very important to be Buddha-like and to understand that to be so is very simple and easy.
Shamatha is both simple and workable. We arc not just retelling myths about what somebody did in the past. Just being here without preconceptions is possible. In fact, it is much simpler than having all kinds of adornments and paraphernalia. Mindfulness is not particularly religious; it is not even a practice. It is a natural behavior that one begins to develop in a very simple manner. At the beginning, you may feel it is somewhat false or that you are making it up. However, as you go on, mindfulness becomes natural and real, and at the same time very personal.
From “The Path of Individual Liberation” by Chogyam Trungpa
Following the Example of the Buddha
The sitting practice of meditation is regarded as one of the most profound and fundamental disciplines you could ever achieve. By doing this practice, you find that you become less crazy. You begin to develop more humor, more relaxation, and ultimately, more mindfulness.
Meditation is about experiencing reality, and being as real as possible in your own existence. In order to experience reality, you have to tame your mind. In meditation practice you use yourself as a fundamental point of reference. You use subconscious thoughts, such as a desire for water or food, as a starting point for working on yourself. .So meditation practice is very ordinary. We are not referring to psychic or outlandish experiences, and we don't expect any flying saucers to land on our heads. The practices of sitting meditation and walking meditation were developed by the Buddha. By practicing meditation, we are following his example: we are going through what the Buddha himself went through. The key point of meditation practice is to develop sympathy for yourself. You could enjoy being yourself. You don't have to borrow anything or bring any foreign influences into your life. You are self-sufficient; therefore, you can make yourself comfortable. In meditation, you create a very natural situation for yourself. Although mindfulness practice may be a primitive technique, you have to begin at that level. You may want to start by trying to match the sophistication of confused mind with sophisticated intellectual methods, such as analyzing yourself to rediscover that you do not have an ego. But that does not seem to work. You have to start at the beginning, with sitting practice.
Meditation practice is based on the idea of being yourself, as you are—something you have rarely done. All along you have had problems with that. Even at an early age, you tried to please your world. You tried to please your mommy and daddy or your nanny, if you had one. Sometimes you got angry with your parents, but you never made a relationship with yourself. Instead, you created a kind of emotional insulation, which became more prominent as you grew from a teenager to an adult. Now you are continuously insulated. You carry that insulation with you in your timid smile and timid aggression. Such timidity, shyness, and uncertainty represent what is known in Buddhist psychology as passion, aggression, and ignorance. Because of that insulation, you have never experienced real life. You have not really learned to be with yourself, although you might have experienced a glimpse of such a possibility in a practice retreat. However, having recognized that fact, you also discover that your existence is workable. Your timidity, uncertainty, and fear can be worked with by means of sitting practice.
Three Aspects of Sitting Practice
The purpose of meditation is to teach you how to be. It has three aspects: posture, technique, and joy.
Posture organizes your being and makes you a true human being with good head and shoulders, as opposed to an ape or a banana. Posture is one difference between animals and human beings. In tudro, the Tibetan word for animal, tu means "bent over," and dro means "to go," or "to walk" so an animal is a sentient being that walks or moves bent over. Unlike animals, human beings are capable of sitting upright and having good head and shoulders.
The second aspect of sitting practice is technique. Basically speaking, the technique is to be spacious and not wait for anything. If something is about to happen, it will happen; if it is not going to happen, it won't. Don't expect anything from your practice. Sitting practice is not a punishment or a reward. Don't expect it will bring you sudden bliss or a new relationship with reality. You have to sever yourself completely from any such view! Nobody is going to help you; you are on your own. John Doe or Jane Doe. Be alone, be lonely. Loneliness has the quality of somebody playing a bamboo flute; it has the quality of somebody strumming a guitar at the foot of a waterfall. Occasionally you sneeze, which might shock you. Loneliness will make you resentful and horny. Loneliness will make you cry and laugh at the same time.
The third aspect of sitting is joy, or appreciation. Sitting practice is joyful, but not in the usual sense. It is hard joy, tough joy, but you will achieve something in the end. Joy is connected with hard work and exertion: you appreciate working hard and you are not trying to escape from pain. If you stay with the pain of practice, it is like carving a rock: it is not necessarily pleasurable, but you are achieving something. It is like sawing a tree or trying to swim across a big river: you keep going and appreciate keeping going.
Practice is like medicine: it is bitter, but good for you. Although it is a bittersweet experience, it is worth it. When you sit on your cushion, it is tearful and joyful put together. Pain and pleasure are one when you sit on your meditation cushion with a sense of humor. Sitting practice is remarkable, fantastic, extraordinary! It is like watching a traffic light: stop, wait, go. It is like an orgasm, which could be both painful and pleasurable. That is life.
The Inspiration to Practice
Understanding how you came to be practicing and why is very important. You need to know why you are practicing or not practicing, what actually motivates you. Meditation is not like suddenly being fixed, which is impossible. So why do you stick with your practice? Why don't you go do something else and forget the whole thing? The motivation to practice arises because each time you practice, there is a sense of joy and well-being. From that feeling of well-being, conviction, or faith, arises.The Tibetan word for motivation is kunlong. Kun means "all," and long means "to rouse"; So kunlong means "to rouse whatever is available." There are many levels of motivation. You may be inspired that what you arc doing has a purpose. You may want to learn more about yourself and about meditation, so you put as much effort and energy into the practice as you can. Your motivation may be more long-range; it may be to have your entire life coincide with practice. But the ultimate motivation is to develop your meditation in order to learn how to work with other people.
Having developed motivation, you then develop shinjang, the sense of relaxation and joy that comes from sitting practice. People tend to complain to a greater or lesser extent. Sometimes people with complaints voice them, and sometimes they swallow them. There are all sorts of relative complaints, but the ultimate complaint is having utterly no joy. Without joy you feel like you are being crushed between two pieces of hot metal. It is like being put into a waffle iron and compressed, so you don't even get a chance to complain. Shinjang is precisely the opposite of that complaint mentality, for with shinjang, joy takes place.
Motivation also has to do with faith. The Tibetan word tepa means "faith," or "conviction." Tepa is basic faith in what you arc doing, so it is similar to kiinlong. Because of faith, you have a sense of being, of existing. You are here and you are following a definite path, so it is not blind faith. If you do not happen to have faith, however, you could start simply. You could have faith in not having faith. If you are penniless and have faith that you are penniless, you could become a millionaire.
On the whole, the practice of meditation is about being here precisely, with joy and humor. You may be motivated to practice by your conviction and faith, but meditation is not at all goal oriented. You may be somewhat goal oriented, but your concept and understanding of the goal is uncertain. The fact that you have no idea what is going to happen, no real idea about the goal, seems to be the saving grace. When a lot of big promises are made—such as that you are going to be happy forever, or that you are going to perform miracles—when you have such solid goals, nothing happens. But you cannot begin perfectly. So if you are goal oriented, fine; just let it be that way. It might turn out to be a big joke. If you are not goal oriented, it might turn out to be a big promise. Who knows? It depends on the practice itself.
Over time, you may develop expectations based on having done a good job and wanting to do it again, or you may have the sense that nothing is happening. However, your practice does not have to match the level described in the scriptures. Your motivation could be that you are willing to be strenuous whether it turns out that way or not. Basically, motivation is the willingness to give in. It is the willingness to be open and to work hard. The question is whether you are willing to commit yourself or whether you are going to cop out. Your attitude or motivation is extremely important.
Traditionally, it is said that we are like drunken elephants. Whether we are drinking alcoholic beverages or not, we are still drunk in our basic being. In order to work with this drunken elephant, we have to make the elephant stay very still, so that the elephant can become sober. In the same way, we have to work with ourselves.
We are crazy. Everybody is crazy, I'm sorry to say. Even the psychologists are crazy! We are all crazy, including the animals, worms, and fleas. We are crazy and we have created this crazy world, which we think is fabulous and terrific. Nonetheless, we are all crazy. How do we get out of that? Purely by sitting. You could try it right now. You could hold up your posture this very moment! You could imitate Buddha.
The sitting practice of meditation is regarded as one of the most profound and fundamental disciplines you could ever achieve. By doing this practice, you find that you become less crazy. You begin to develop more humor, more relaxation, and ultimately more mindfulness.
Mindfulness practice depends on your cheerfulness. You should not regard yourself as being punished for your crazy outlook, or feel that you have to cleanse yourself. You do not have to regard sitting practice as a punishment, like going to church and sitting on a hard bench to purify the sins you have committed. It is not like going to confession and saying, "Bless me Father, for I have sinned." Instead, the idea of mindfulness and sitting practice is joyfulness. If you regard sitting practice as a joyful experience, even the pains in your back and in your legs will diminish.
If you regard spiritual discipline as a punishment for having done something bad, you are in trouble. You are still in the theistic framework. If you do not regard meditation practice as punishment, your speech becomes natural, and as a result there is less gossip. The more you suppress, the reactions you get; therefore, you become less controllable. In contrast, the more relaxation and humor there is, the more you begin to understand. There is less chatter, due to the very fact that you don't suppress yourself. That seems to be the basic point: less suppression. In order to attain nirvana, or freedom, you have to suppress yourself less. You do this by means of sitting practice. In the beginning, it might be painful, but the end product is more enjoyable. When the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree, he wasn't tormenting himself; he was enjoying himself. For six years he had a great time. The only time he had any second thoughts was when he spent forty days wondering how he could communicate the joy that he had experienced. He was not sure how people could be made to understand such joy and wakefulness. After he had spent forty days in that way, he began to speak. He began to present the teaching of the four noble truths to others. It is a very joyful occasion when someone presents the dharma. Once you are fully here, with mindfulness and awareness, it is known as holding buddha in the palm of your hand. Buddha is right here.
The Importance of Practice
There is no way one can attain freedom without sitting practice. To work with egolessness, we need training in letting go of our ground. There is a need for the rug to be pulled out from under our feet. Meditation is the only way to do that. In the early stages of the hinayana journey in particular, the sitting practice of meditation is regarded as the one and only way to attain peace.
Your approach to mindfulness practice and to life should be very precise and direct. There is no room for confusion or chaos. When you sit, vou sit; when you do not sit, you do not sit. You may be doing activities around the environment of sitting, but that is not sitting. We cannot say that when you do not sit, you are still sitting, because you are not sitting. Even though what you are doing may be compassionate activity for a good cause, even though you may be working to bring the buddhadharma to the West, we still would not regard you as a good sitter. We could regard vou as a good missionary or a good householder. But when you do not sit. you do not sit.
It requires selfless service to provide situations for other people to sit. For instance, when we were building Karme Choling, our retreat center in Vermont, the work crew had no time to sit. However, in that case, even though they themselves were not sitting, they were providing space for others to practice. When you don't sit for your own sake because you want to have a good time lounging around in your bedroom or kicking around ideas, it is a different situation. At Karme Choling our buildings and our meditation cushions were all made by meditators, so there is no way you can get away from meditation practice. It is in everything above, below, and in between. Your cushion could eat you from below.
Sitting practice has immense importance. If there is no sitting practice, there is no way at all of getting beyond the problem of ego. We need to recognize, realize, and manifest our ego problems properly, fully, and thoroughly; without sitting, we have no way of doing that. We could join primal-scream therapy, or go to an encounter group, or take a heavy dose of LSD, or smoke a gigantic joint, or drink a whole bottle of tequila. Although we may do all that in the name of spirituality, nothing really happens. The problem is that those are sudden measures; they only last for a short time. In order to be able to work with yourself properly, you have to sit. Meditation practice has to be considered the highlight of all your activities, the most important and best thing you do.
There is a lot of corruption taking place in the Buddhist world. One of the most critical is that Tibetans do not meditate. Even the highest people, who are reputed to be good sources of inspiration, do not sit. If communist China had not invaded Tibet, quite possibly we would have had no way of presenting the buddhadharma in the West. Tibetan Buddhism would be dead, having perished in its own graveyard. Our responsibility is to practice the real buddhadharma as the Buddha taught it and as the lineage has described it, which is that without the practice of meditation, nothing can happen.
Without sitting, there is no hope. Although you may have heard about Buddhism and studied the dharma, if you have not learned to sit properly, it is like producing a baby that cannot cry, piss, or shit. The dharma would be like a thousand-year-old egg, which has not been eaten, but is still sitting in somebody's Chinatown shop. It is a grim picture. Sitting practice is not always going to be smooth, pleasant, comfy, and nice—it is also going to be very painful. However, whether you are experiencing pain or pleasure, what really is needed is the subtle humor of somebody standing behind your back willing to kick you off the cliff. You may think you are drowning, but you have to drown more! It cannot be helped. You have to do it. The Buddhist motto is: "Actions speak louder than words."
You have to sit if you want to hatch eggs; you have to sit if you want to cook food; you have to sit if you want to perk up. Sitting is very dull. It does not say very much. There is no encounter group, no sensory awareness or touchy-feely. Sitting is very ordinary and very simple. Because of that, it is highly precious. It seems to be the best idea that humankind ever came up with, and the first person to have that idea was Buddha himself. We feel very grateful to the Buddha that he came up with such an idea. It is a fantastic thought! Not only was the Buddha enlightened, he was more than enlightened—he was an enlightened practical person. He knew how to handle us, even in the twentieth century. His logic never dies.
From “The Path of Individual Liberation” Chogyam Trungpa
The Basic Minimum
In sitting meditation, you arc dealing with body, speech, and mind simultaneously. You are developing a sense of precision and accuracy. There is no room, none whatsoever, for imagination or improvisation.
In meditation practice, discipline is not how many hours you sit: it is your total involvement in the practice. In shamatha, body, speech, and mind are completely and totally involved in the sitting practice. In vipashyana, there is also total involvement of body, speech, and mind; in addition, you are also completely aware of the environment around you. When you are involved so much that there is no longer an individual entity left to watch itself, that is the shunyata, or "emptiness," level of practice, I encourage you to have that approach of total involvement in your sitting practice and in meditation in action, or everyday life. Commitment to the practice of meditation is a way of committing yourself to the teachings. Teachers are purely spokespeople for the teachings; the teachings themselves are based on your own involvement.
Working with the Mind
In meditation practice, what we are working on, working with, working at, is the mind. Mind is what we use, apply, and manipulate. In Tibetan, mind is known as sem. In Sanskrit, mind is known as chitta. Chitta means "mind," or "heart"; it is that which thinks, that which perceives thoughts. Mind and thoughts are inseparable, like a king and his retinue, or the hand and its fingers. Chitta, or sem, perpetually thinks, perpetually schemes. Mind perpetuates thoughts around us and in us, such as love or hate. Mind causes us to be fascinated by the world or, for that matter, turned off by the world. We are perpetually being turned off and turned on by this particular thing called mind. It makes us happy or sad, inspired or uninspired. Artists are turned-on by this; musicians are turned on by this; revolutionaries are turned on by this. Culture was created by this; the very room you are in was created by this. It is neither masculine nor feminine. We call it mind, or "it." This mind is what we have to work with. Although it is difficult, we cannot give up. We are stuck with this mind, like having chewing gum stuck on our fingers, and the way we are going to free ourselves, or free "it," is with dharma. It is the dharma that is going to liberate us. Therefore, we are practicing meditation.
Why will meditation free us, and how is it going to work? It works by picking up our end of the stick. Rather than by tackling mind as an enemy or a friend, you work gently, using the system developed by the Buddha, which is to let go and to tighten up. You loosen, or let go, by means of the out-breath; you tighten up, or concentrate, by using the body. Working with posture is the means to release the tension and frustration that exist in the mind. Straightening your posture will satisfy it, just like giving milk to a crying baby, or opening the doors and windows in a stuffy room. By using those two techniques of loosening and tightening, you will be able to free the mind. Within confused mind, or bewilderment, there is the possibility of awakening. Confused mind is like the night: although it is dark, there is still light because you can see the moon and the stars.
The sitting practice of meditation developed into different styles in different countries, and there are many levels of practice. The approach of my lineage, the Kagyu lineage of Buddhism, is surprisingly close to the Theravada school of Buddhism and to the Soto Zen tradition of Japan. The Zen tradition practices hinayana Buddhism in the light of mahayana inspiration; in Tibetan Buddhism, we practice hinayana discipline in the light of vajrayana. Nevertheless, we still have to practice at an ordinary, simple, strict, direct, clear level.
When I began teaching Westerns to meditate, I noticed that some students were able to tune in to openness directly. So I did not give them a technique, but encouraged direct opening, a sudden flash. However, in intensive meditation programs, that approach became a problem. Those students began to question whether that open experience was genuine or a hallucination. Although they had nothing to do but sit and let that openness happen, all kinds of thoughts began to churn up in the mind. Auditory, visual, and physical sensations began to take them over. So although such instructions are valid on their own merit, during intensive practice I feel that students should practice the more conservative approach of mindfulness of breathing. Also, there are different styles of breathing belonging to different levels of meditation practice, such as shamatha, vipashyana, mahavipashyana, or "great vipashyana," and shunyata. However, instead of classifying the different styles of practice, I prefer to present very simply and directly what it is necessary to do to begin sitting.
Going Out with the Breath and Dissolving
In sitting meditation, you are dealing with body, speech, and mind simultaneously. You are developing a sense of precision and accuracy. There is no room, none whatsoever, for imagination or improvisation in sitting practice or in walking practice. In mindfulness of breathing, you have a sense of the breath. You are being with the breath and the subtleties of the breath. You do not have to be too scientific concerning your lungs, your nostrils, hot and cold temperatures, or the impression the breath creates on your lips as you breathe out. Instead you should have a sense of the breathing as the ongoing survival mechanism that governs you. You are becoming mindful of the natural breathing. Mindfulness is not looking at, thinking about, or imagining something better or higher than your natural breathing. You have a sense of breathing out. You experience the breath going out and dissolving, and on the in-breath there is a gap. You do not have to follow the in-breath as you draw it in; you can let it drop. So the in-breath is an insignificant space, a gap; then you breathe out again. In mindfulness practice, you are simply identifying with the breath. In particular, you are trying to follow the out-breath. The in-breathing is just a gap or space. You wait. Then, when you have breathed out, you dissolve, and —gap. You breathe out, dissolve, and—gap. In that way, openness and expansion take place constantly. By creating a gap area, there is less strain. Once you breathe out, you are sure to breathe in, so there's room for relief. It is a question of openness. Out-breathing is an expression of stepping out of your system. It has nothing to do with centralizing in your body. Usually everything is bottled up, but here you are sharing, you are giving something out. All that is associated with the out-breath.
The out-breathing is an expression of being. In-breathing is a confirmation of being, because we need oxygen to live. Psychologically, however, it helps to put less emphasis on the thisness, and more on the ongoing process of going out. Also, strangely enough, you find that the attention on physical being, the awareness of body, becomes more precise if you begin to feel that sense of going out. Relating with yourself in terms of going out is automatic confirmation that you are breathing without any difficulties. Your breathing is no problem; you don't need an iron lung. The in-breathing is a sign of struggle. If you are short of breath, you breathe in. Out-breathing has a feeling of relaxation and well-being, a reeling of existing.
The shamatha approach is to simplify everything to the basic minimum. You should not try to improvise or do anything other than follow your breath very simply. You should walk in and sit down properly on your meditation cushion. You should arrange yourself fully; you don't just plop. You should feel your cushion and make yourself as comfortable as you can. Don't rush into the technique; first settle down and adjust yourself. After that, feel your breath, your ordinary breath. If you are alive, you are always breathing; unless you are dead, breathing is constant. Feel your breath, identify completely with the breath, be the breath. Become one with the breath. As your breathing goes out, you go out with the breath; and as the breathing dissolves, you dissolve. As you dissolve and the breathing dissolves, there is a momentary gap. Breathing in follows as the natural process of preparing for the next out-breath. You pick up on the breath again when you breathe out. So in the practice of meditation, you go out and dissolve: out-dissolve, out-dissolve. There is a gap; there is openness. It is a process of expanding.
Some traditions feel that you should be cranking up all the time. They think that you should be kept occupied, be a busybody, otherwise you are wasting your money. However, in our approach to shamatha, there is a contrast between doing something and doing nothing. That is the secret, actually! The gap is just a gap: you do nothing. So there is a slight tinge of vajrayana in our approach to shamatha practice; it is not exclusively hinayana. You should not be afraid of that gap. According to traditional historical accounts, when the Buddha first began to talk about emptiness, several of the arhats, or senior disciples, had heart attacks and died. That sense of gap is precisely where their heart attacks began! You might think, "What am I going to do if I don't have anything to do?" Precisely! That is a very beautiful illustration of this.
Take Your Time
In group practice, when the leader rings the gong to begin, don't mentally start to practice right away. When the gong strikes, prepare yourself and pay attention to your body. Correct your posture. Feel your breath, your lungs, your legs, and your posture. Just feel them. The gong is the signal to feel your body, your head and shoulders, and your cushion. Just feel. Having felt everything, as the sound of the gong fades, you can start working on mindfulness of your breath.
The reason you should take your time is to make everything very genuine and honest. When the gong is rung, you don't just go bam! into samadhi. When you sit, you have to work with your mind and body and with everything that happens, so prepare yourself. This might take as much time as counting from one to twenty-five. When you first sit down on your cushion, be kind and gentle to yourself. Be natural. Don't tell yourself, "Now I'm going to give it a go, and I'm going to do it the hard way. I'm going to give myself pain." That doesn't work. When you sit down, first settle nicely on your cushion and treat yourself well. Give yourself a good time.
As the sound of the gong fades, having settled yourself on the cushion, raise your posture. Don't straighten up right at the beginning when you first sit down. You could even hunch down. Then as the sound of the gong fades away, raise yourself up so that you achieve good posture. Having done so, you can exert yourself further. Ideally, you should not have to reshuffle yourself too much as you are sitting. If you made a mistake when you first started to sit, you can correct that, but if possible don't reshuffle at all. If you take this approach, you can have a nice sitting.
When the sound of the gong has faded completely, having taken your posture, you are ready to start working with your breath. It is as if somebody were leading you on a mountain trail on horseback gave you the reins: "You have to ride your own horse. It's all yours.” So first you give yourself a good time, and then you become well disciplined.
To review, first you hear the gong, then you settle, then you go out with the out-breath—tshoo!—then you come back to your posture. So you have the mind together with the breath, with the body as an overall reference point.
From “The Path of Individual Liberation” Chogyam Trungpa
Don't regard yourself as good or bad. You are just you, thinking and coming back to the breath. You are not trying to push thoughts away, nor are you trying to cultivate them. You are just labeling them "thinking." No matter what thought comes up, don't panic; just label it "thinking"—stop—and come back to your breath.
The thinking process takes place all the time. That is everybody's problem. In order to solve that particular problem, you have to discover what goes on in your mind. It is very direct and personal. In sitting practice, you spend at least eighty percent of your practice dealing with thoughts, but that does not mean you are being extraordinarily naughty or terrible. Even if you are so completely occupied with your thoughts that you do not have much time left to work with the technique, don't think you are being bad. You should feel grateful that your sitting practice is not one-hundred-percent thoughts! Eighty-percent thoughts is pretty good, so don't punish yourself. You are not doing anything wrong and you are not committing any sin.
In meditation practice, you regard everything that takes place in your mind—every little detail, every little explosion—as thinking. You are not trying to separate thoughts from emotions. If you feel angry at somebody; if you have a sudden burst of passion, your own privale porn show; if you are going through cookbooks and visualizing beautiful food or drink; if you are on the coast swimming in the ocean or walking barefoot along the seashore—all those little outbursts of anger or passion are regarded as just thinking. Metaphysical dialogues or debates, evaluations of art and music, questions of reality and enlightenment, ideas of mathematics and science, ideas of love and friendship—all those philosophical questions that come into your head are regarded as just thinking. Even if you have very dedicated thoughts or dharmic thoughts, they are still regarded as just thinking.
Regarding emotions as thoughts may seem dry, but when you have a strong thought it involves your whole being. For example, if you are in a battlefield, you can be shot to death by an enemy sniper at any time. That is a thought, but a very real thought. You think that to your right and to your left, your friends are turning into corpses instantaneously, and since you are standing in the middle you too could be a corpse pretty soon. Those are really strong thoughts. However, although such thoughts have some reference point of reality, they are still thoughts. Even when you take action, it is your thoughts that drive you into action. For instance, driving manuals talk about having a thinking distance, a braking distance, and a stopping distance. When a car in front of you stops, first you think about stopping, then you step on the brake, and finally you actually stop. It always works like that.
You might think you are making a breakthrough this very moment and that you are just about to dissolve into space. You might think you are going to kill your mother or father on the spot because you are so upset with them. You might think you are going to make love to somebody who is extraordinarily lovable. You might think you are about to have such a fantastic affair that it could exhaust the whole universe. You might have a thought of assassinating your guru, or you might want to make lemon juice and eat cookies. A large range of thinking goes on, but in terms of sitting practice, it does not matter whether you have monstrous thoughts or benevolent thoughts, sinful or virtuous thoughts—any thought is just thinking. So please don't be shocked by your thoughts, and don't think that any thought deserves a gold medal.
You do not need pigeonholes for all the concepts that arise. It doesn't make any difference whether you have good thoughts or bad thoughts, whether you think that you are the Buddha himself or you think you are in the realm of hell. It is all just thinking. Thoughts arise all the time. If you have a hierarchical bureaucracy in which every thought pattern that occurs in the mind is labeled as good or bad, all kinds of problems develop. When you feel hurt, you think about that; when you feel good, you think about that.
In the Buddhist approach, doubt is just a thought. Doubt could be said to be a powerful thought, but it is still a thought. You may have doubt as to whether doubt is a thought or not, but that doubt itself is a thought. Guilt is also just a thought. You do not try to get rid of guilt, and you do not try to feel that you are doing something worthwhile. If you have a guilty thought, so what? It is a thought. It is your mind.
In shamatha, you have to look at such thoughts, but not because they have a case history. It is like seeing rain, snow, a hailstorm, or a cloudy day—it's all just weather. This might seem too easy, but it is very useful to look at things in this way. We usually do not do so, however. If you are extremely angry with somebody and your wife comes along and tells you, "Darling, this is just your thought," then you get angry with her as well! You scream, "It's not just my thought! He did something wrong to me, and I am extremely angry. I want to kill him!" But we have to give up that idea. It seems to be a big thing to give up, but your wife is right—it is a thought.
We have to accept that all experiences are just thought patterns. Buddha said that when a musician plays a stringed instrument, both the strings and his fingers are his mind. According to Buddhist psychology, there are fifty-two different types of thought processes. Some are pious, some are political, some are domestic, some are sensible. But all of them are just thoughts. As far as meditators are concerned, that is the key. With that key, you begin to find that you can handle life as it happens around you. With so many pigeonholes, you cannot handle the whole thing. But once you begin to realize that everything is thought process, you can handle your life because nothing is complicated. Everything is thought.
The traditional technique for dealing with all those mental activities is mentally to note them and label them "thinking." Inevitably, once you are settled into your practice—bing!—there will be a thought. At that point you say "thinking," not out loud but mentally. Labeling thoughts in that way will give you tremendous leverage to come back to your breath. When a thought takes you over completely, so that you are not even on the cushion but somewhere else—in San Francisco or New York City—as soon as you notice, you say "thinking" and bring yourself back to the breath. You don't regard yourself as good or bad. You are just you, thinking and coming back to the breath. You are not trying to push thoughts away, nor are you trying to cultivate them. You are just labeling "thinking." No matter what thought comes up, don't panic; just label it "thinking"—stop—and go back to your breath.
By labeling thoughts "thinking," you are simply seeing them and acknowledging them as they are. You acknowledge everything as thoughts, as the thinking process, and come back to the technique. Labeling practice has to become instinctual. You can talk to yourself, but that is a second-rate experience, arising out of extreme boredom. It is not necessary to verbalize. Rather than saying, "Now I should get back to the breath," just come back! There has to be some abruptness. Introductory remarks as to what you are going to do are a waste of time.
Coming back to your breath is not regarded as suppression; it is returning to where you began. Your work has been interrupted, so you are coming back to it. It is as if you were chopping wood, then your friend came along and you got involved in a conversation. You tell your friend, "I must get back to work," rather than "I must suppress our conversation." You don't come back to the breath because things are becoming unpleasant, or use coming back to the breath as a protection or shield. At the shamatha level, whether a thought is unpleasant or pleasant doesn't really matter. You just label it "thinking," and come back to the breath.
If you seem to be working with the breathing and having thoughts at the same time, that means you are unable to identify completely with your breath. There is some deception in thinking that you can work with the thoughts and the breath at the same time. If a thought occurs along with the breathing, you are thinking; if a sense perception such as hearing occurs, you are thinking. You cannot hear without thinking. If you hear a sound, you know which kind of sound it is, whether it is music or a gunshot. You cannot hear without categorizing, so you are still thinking. Everything is thinking. It goes on everywhere continually. We have not yet come to any conclusion as to whose fault that is. Instead, we just label everything "thinking," as in "I think I have a mosquito on my face."
Meditation practice is very simple and straightforward. Don't try to make a big game out of it. If you keep it simple, there is no confusion. While you are practicing, you should not think about what you are going to get out of it. You just do it. Also, unless it is practically necessary, it is very important not to think about what you are going to do after meditating. You should just settle down into the practice.
Everything that comes up in your mind is just thought process. It is thinking. Thinking might bring something else—nonthinking—but we are a long way from experiencing that. As far as the hinayana is concerned, no mahayana exists. Everything is hinayana, the narrow path. In shamatha practice, you regard everything as thought. When you sit, you should think, "There are no nonthoughts." Even techniques are thoughts. That is straight shamatha, without soda and ice.
From “The Path of Individual Liberation” Chogyam Trungpa
Taking Your Seat
The meditation posture is quite universal. It is not particularly Buddhist. You can see this posture, this royal pose, in Egyptian sculptures and in South American pottery. It is not mystical or magical. The idea is to be a complete human being. In order to imitate the Buddha, you start with posture.
In sitting practice, it is important to hold your posture. To begin with, hold your head and shoulders erect as if you were a great warrior. Have a quality of upliftedness. Then as your posture develops, think of your back. F:irst feel your posture being supported by your head and shoulders; then you can begin to experience your lower torso. You should never slouch, siesta-style. Keep your posture clear and fresh. You should have a sense of who you actually are, without needing to ask. When you sit up, you can breathe. You can feel your head and shoulders. That becomes very powerful. It is fantastic.
Being upright brings a sense of clear perception. The ayatanas, or senses, are clarified, because most of the ayatanas are located on the upper part of your body: your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. Upright posture also helps the spine. It clarifies depression, which is said to come from the heart and from the seventh, eighth, and ninth vertebrae, as well as the shoulder sockets. With good posture, you naturally develop your inner strength. In addition to that, with good posture, you feel uplifted and overcome drowsiness. Posture is connected with overcoming laziness, aggression, and the desire to take time off or to escape from the dharma.
When you meditate, you should straighten your body, but not to the extent of being military in style. You can use a simple cross-legged position, a half-lotus posture. You can also kneel, using a meditation bench for support. This posture comes from the Japanese tradition. Any of those postures seem to be accurate and good. You do not need to sit in the full-lotus posture, which may create problems for your feet, such as pins and needles. You can just sit cross-legged, letting your knees drop down, with your hands resting on your thighs, not too far to the front or back. If you have long legs, you may need to use a support cushion. Sometimes your hands might begin to feel as if each finger is monolithic, or you may feel that your tongue, your head, or another part of your body is extremely heavy and is pulling you down. Don't pay too much attention to any of those sensations; they will change.
You could adjust your posture if your body feels strained. However, you should not just take any old posture, because bad posture distracts you. It destroys your natural flow of breath and it interrupts your sense of ongoing spaciousness. In turn, if your breathing becomes self-conscious, that is reflected in your posture. With bad posture, you are involved with all kinds of one-sided feelings, as opposed to having a sense of balance. So posture is important.
It is not necessary to sit on a meditation cushion. It is also possible to meditate sitting on a chair. If you have a physical problem such as a strained knee or back, or you have been injured in an accident, there is no point in straining yourself. If your body is aged and it is difficult for you to position yourself on the cushion, I would also recommend that you sit on a chair. Sitting on a chair, known as the Maitreya asana, is an accepted meditation posture. However, when you sit on a chair for a long time, you automatically tend to lean back. Relying on the security of the chair back is unhealthy; it leads to a strained body and a weak circulation. So it is recommended that you sit upright, without anything to lean on. In that way, your posture is both upright and self-contained. You are relating with the floor, with the earth, and you can also feel the space around your body.
An upright back is extremely good and necessary. Having an upright back is natural to the human body; slouching is unnatural. Slouching is giving in to neurosis, which we call "setting sun." By sitting upright, you are proclaiming to yourself and to the rest of the world that you are going to become buddha, or awake, one day. Uprightness comes from sitting properly on the cushion or chair. Sitting in the middle of the meditation cushion provides the possibility of holding your seat. Then, because your back is upright, your head and neck are also in the proper position. You are not shy. You do not hang your head. You are not bending to anything. Because of that, your shoulders become straight automatically. You do not need to strain yourself by pulling up with your shoulders. When your back is upright, your energy goes up, and your head and shoulders are automatically good.
Your meditation cushion should not be regarded as a diving board. If you sit perched, as if you were about to launch yourself from a diving board, then all your weight will be on your knees. You will have difficulty holding your back properly, and your spine will be strained by an unnecessary bend, which will lead to pain and soreness in your shoulder blades and neck. Consequently, you cannot breathe properly. So it will be helpful if you do not perch on your cushion. Putting your cushion between your legs and riding on it is also not acceptable. Riding on your cushion, like riding a toy horse on the merry-go-round, has an infantile quality. You should assume some kind of dignity, rather than always trying to accommodate yourself.
Your posture is the saving grace in synchronizing your mind and body. If you don't have good posture, you can never do anything. You become like a lame horse trying to pull a cart. You should sit like the Buddha sits. The Buddha does not sit on the edge of his seat; he sits in the middle. When you begin to do that, you feel better. A square cushion, or gomdon, is much better designed for sitting in this way than a round cushion, or zafu. With a gomden, you have your own seat, just as the Buddha had his seat under the bodhi tree. You are like the Buddha.
Sitting in the middle of the cushion is comparable to riding a horse. In dressage, you sit in the center of your saddle. Your legs are slightly bent so that your shoulders are aligned with your legs, and you are in a perfect, perpendicular, upright posture. The idea is that you should hold your seat, just like the Buddha on his lotus cushion. I have often noticed that instead of holding their seat, students follow a kind of orthotics approach. If you have a defect in your feet, you can go to a special shoemaker who takes a cast of your feet and makes special shoes for you. If your foot is tilted or you have a bad heel, the shoemaker can adjust your shoes so that you will be able to walk naturally. However, a meditation cushion is not at all like such a shoe. It is designed for people who can hold their seat and sit properly.
The point of good posture is to enable you to feel your whole system together at once: your body, your head, your neck, your mouth, your belly. All your systems are there fully. You are sitting on the cushion or chair as one unit, one piece, as if you were a well-carved statue of the Buddha. Even on the ordinary physical level, you feel that you are doing the practice fully and properly. You are right there, with your spine in its proper place. The tip of your tongue is lifted to rest behind the upper front teeth. Your eyes are cast slightly down but not closed; and because of your posture, your breathing is regulated. You are paying attention to your shoulders, and your abdomen is in the right place, not bulged out or sucked in. There is a sense of straightforwardness, which stems from your backbone, your general posture, and your hips being in the proper place on your cushion.
Although posture is important, the Theravada and Tibetan traditions put less emphasis on the posture than the Japanese tradition, which takes it very literally. As Westerners, you could develop a middle way. The merit of being Westerners is that you have access to all the traditions and disciplines. However, if you get carried away, you could get caught up in spiritual materialism, the fascination with spiritual attainment and the exotic cultural trappings of the East. So you have to pay attention and remind yourself that you are meditating in your own society and culture, not somewhere else.
The meditation posture is quite universal. It is not particularly Buddhist. You can see this posture, this royal pose, in Egyptian sculptures and in South American pottery. It is not mystical or magical. The idea is to be a complete human being. In order to imitate the Buddha, you start with posture.
General Guidelines for Meditation Practice
It is important to begin by taking a proper upright posture. Having done so, you can establish a firm foundation for meditation practice by following a few simple guidelines.
Having a Sense of Space.
When you sit, having some room above your head is very helpful. You shouldn't feel cramped, but that you have room to expand. If you have hallucinations, you could come back to your body. You do not have to develop visionary samsaric recreation; instead, you can refer back to the body and to your posture. Having done so, you can let go and breathe out. And as you do so, you could try to relax-not by slouching, but by being on the dot.
Relaxing the Gaze.
In the meditation posture, you are being present there properly, fully present. Therefore, your eyes are open and your gaze is down. Traditionally, the Buddhist scriptures say that your gaze should rest on the floor in front of you at a distance the length of an ox's yoke, which would be two to three yards. Often it has been taught that you should gaze down the line of your nose, but I suppose that depends on how big your nose is. The point is just to gaze down. At the same time, you try to keep your posture and gently go out with your breath.
Placing the Hands.
You can hold the hands in the "cosmic mudra" or rest them on your knees in the "relaxing-the-mind mudra." Both are acceptable. For the cosmic mudra, you rest your arms on your thighs, and place your hands one on top of the other, palms facing up. You relax your thumbs and lingers, and raise your thumbs to form a circle, but with your thumb tips slightly apart. You do not need to hold your hands above your thighs, which puts a strain on your arms and shoulders. You also should not hold your hands together tightly, but rest your hands on one another, with your thumbs just about to meet. In that way, your thumbs can remain quite steady. The idea is that if you have a good seat, you could relax your hands.
The hand position I usually suggest is the relaxing-the-mind mudra, in which you rest your hands on your knees. It is a much more royal posture, and a somewhat tantric position. This mudra is also called the "double earth-witnessing mudra." It is a good one. When the Buddha was asked who had witnessed his attainment of enlightenment, he said, "The earth is my witness. I sat on this earth; I practiced on this earth." Then with one hand he touched the earth as his witness, using the "earth-touching mudra." Here, since both hands are resting on the knees, it is the double earth-witnessing mudra. You could use either the cosmic mudra or the double earth-witnessing mudra.
Overall, the particular mudra or posture is not as important as the totality, or sense of unity. In meditation, you don't do just any old thing, but there is a sense of balance.
Breathing Through Both Nose and Mouth.
When you sit, you should keep your mouth open a little, as if you were saying "Ah." You should not restrict your breathing to your nostrils, but provide a space so that the out-breath comes from both your nostrils and your mouth. In particular, people with sinus problems would have difficulty meditating if they had to close their mouths.
Taking Your Seat and Projecting Out.
When you are meditating, you are trying to mimic, or emulate, the Buddha, You should have a sense of openness and uprightness. You should feel that you are projecting out, as if you were a universal monarch or the Enlightened One. You should also learn to listen to dharma talks in this way. You don't have to stick your neck out and strain to look at the teacher, but you can hold your posture and keep your neck flexible. Every time you sit, you could project out in that way; not only in the formal meditation practice of relating with yourself and your mind, but also in everyday life.
When you sit, you do not have to become ego-centered, thinking that you are going to attain enlightenment in a couple of months or at least at some time in your life. You do not have to be that corny. However, you could develop ambition and real discipline. In doing so, posture plays an extremely important part. So before you begin any session of sitting practice, you should check your shoulders, your head, your neck, and your back; you should feel your hands on your knees. The minute you sit down, you could check through all that very quickly. This is not a trip, it is not body building; it is very simple. Each session of sitting should begin in that same way, by checking your posture, and after walking meditation, you create your posture again.
From “The Path of Individual Liberation” Chogyam Trungpa
[In meditation practice, ] the body becomes insignificant, and space and breathing become more important. In fact, the breath is the most important part of the practice. Thoughts come up with the sense of body, the sense of "me" being here. However, if there is no central authority, if your practice is purely activity in space. thoughts become transparent.
As you meditate, your breath is going in and out. You may have ideas about your breath or think there is some problem with the way you are breathing, but you should just try to go along with the breath you have. It is important to breathe normally. Your breath will be affected by your posture, by exercise, or by whether you had a heavy meal or a light meal. Your breathing is also affected by your vision. If your vision is too focused, for instance, your breathing will begin to pick up. Along with that will come sudden discursive thoughts: sexual fantasies, aggressive fantasies, all sorts of fantasies. So it is better not to focus your vision, but to let your vision rest. Even if your breathing is affected by such things, you still should not force yourself to breathe in a certain way, but let your breath flow naturally. And if your breathing happens to be fast, you should give it time to settle.
In meditation practice, you place your attention on the out-breath. As you are breathing, you just go out with the breath and the breath dissolves. As you breathe in, you wait, and then go out again. It is very natural and very slow. When thoughts come up, you label them "thinking," and return to the breath. You have to be very precise about the whole thing; you can't miss an inch. You should not think twice, thinking that you are thinking "thinking." It has to be right on the dot. When you breathe, you are utterly there, properly there; as you breathe out, you dissolve or diffuse. Then you come back to your posture, and you are ready for another out-breath. Over and over you come back to your posture, breathe out, and come back again. It is quite hard work. As the breath dissolves, it is becoming less important. As your breath goes out and begins to reach beyond you, there is space. You just keep breathing out and dissolving; breathing in just happens. So it is out... rest... out... rest. You don't use any tricks; you just put an emphasis on out. And while you are practicing, you should not think about what you're going to get out of meditation. You just do it.
Learning How to Let Go
As you practice, you should keep it very simple. After each breath goes out, there is a gap—not a big drop, just a gap. That gap could be felt. You might feel it as a moment of waiting, or expectation, or being ready for the next out-breath. As you breathe out, ideally about twenty-five percent of your awareness is on the out-breath. Beyond that, you don't need to be aware of anything—there is simply a gap—then you breathe out again. If you do not scheme, but just sit and follow your breath, that makes life very simple.
The sitting practice of meditation is basically: out-breath ... dissolve... gap; out-breath . . . dissolve .. . gap; out-breath . . . dissolve . .. gap. Keep it at that level. If any jolt takes place, it is usually due to your posture, so your posture has to be extremely good. If your out-breath doesn't quite dissolve, it isn't quite out-breath; so each time you breathe, your practice has to be precise—very simple, very direct, and very accurate.
When you breathe out, you do so with some tension or tautness. You look at your breath, but you do not use it as a means of achieving absorption. Sounds, temperature, the feeling of your clothes, the food you might or might not have in your stomach, all sorts of pains in your joints, your back, your neck, and your arms—you could regard all those as thoughts. It is all thinking.
The out-breath is connected with the idea of letting go. You are always breathing out. When you talk, you breathe out; when you eat, you breathe out. Breathing out is not gymnastics, but simply learning how to let go. You develop mindfulness as you let go. Mindfulness is in jeopardy when you are busy projecting toward something, or when your mind is distracted because you are trying to make sense of something as you are breathing out.
In meditation practice, you are in the process of developing action along with nonaction as you begin to touch the world. When you meditate, you have mindfulness of the breathing going out, then you cut that; then you have another mindfulness of the breathing going out, and you cut that. In other words, you go out with the transport—and suddenly you have no transport! Then you start again. In that way, the gap of the in-breath becomes extremely spacious. By focusing on the out-breath, your practice is not based on the ongoing speed of out-and-in, out-and-in, all the time. Instead, a leap is involved, a miniature leap. It takes a little effort, but you could feel very refreshed.
If you follow both the in-breath and the out-breath, you are being too faithful. The whole thing becomes very linear: you go out and you come in; you go out and you come in. If you go out and come in again and again, in the end that makes you very heady. You have no rest, and everything is extremely hard work. In contrast, when you go out, then nothing happens; then you go out again, and nothing happens—it is very clean-cut. The out-breath is threatening in a sense, but focusing on the out-breath is a much freer approach. If you allow yourself a rest as you breathe in, the out-breathing becomes more of a journey, however short that journey may be. You simply go out with the breath. When you do so, the body becomes insignificant, and space and breathing become more important. In fact, the breath is the most important part of the practice. Thoughts come up with the sense of body, the sense of "me" being here. However, if there is no central authority, if your practice is purely activity in space, thoughts become transparent.
As you breathe, you should not try to reach perfect breathing; you just breathe. Even animals can do that. Breathing obviously comes from your lungs and your nose, but if you are just feeling the breathing coming out of your nostrils, you are not feeling where it actually begins and how it flows. At first, your sense of the breathing may be very general and vague, but as your mindfulness of breathing continues, you experience the whole process very specifically. There is a pattern as your breathing goes out, a sense of it really happening, so you do not have to focus on your nostrils. It is like hearing a noise: when you hear a noise, a sound traveling through space, you can relate with the sound rather than having to relate with your ears.
The practice of shamatha is environmental as well as technique oriented. In shamatha practice, a twenty-five-percent touch of awareness on the breath seems to be about right. In any case, you can't do more than that. Because you keep your eyes open, you see things; your ears are not clogged, so you hear things. You are aware of the way your clothes feel and of the temperature in the room. You are aware of your stomach being full or empty. If you took a shower before sitting, you feel clean. You feel your hairdo and the spectacles you are wearing. You feel whether your mouth is dry or wet. There are all sorts of little sensations like that, which leaves only about twenty-five percent of your awareness left for working with your breath.
That is a natural situation. You exist as a human being, and your sense perceptions are operating everywhere all the time. The idea of shamatha is to narrow all that down into twenry-five-percent awareness of the breath as a way of training yourself. You are internalizing a little, as opposed to trying to cast off the sights you see, the sounds you hear, the smells you smell, and the tastes you taste, and the physical sensations you experience. During your sitting practice, you reduce all that into the breath, which will be about twenty-five percent of your attention, if you calculate scientifically how much is going on in your body. You might as well come back to the breath. It is more joyful, more wholesome, and you don't have to be startled by anything. In shamatha, you are bringing the rest of the things going on in your existence back to one particular thing: the breath. It is very simple.
Relying on Guesswork
You may find that as you are keeping your heedfulness on the breathing, the thinking process continues to freely function at the same time. That is quite common; it happens with a lot of practitioners. Once you develop a feeling of the rhythm of the breath, you can be aware of the breathing and at the same time entertain yourself with all kinds of thoughts. The problem with that approach—by the way, it is not regarded as a problem at the beginning—is that it is a sign that you are not properly in contact with the breathing. The monotonousness of the breathing leads you to rely on guesswork. You are just guessing that when you breathe in, you automatically breathe out. You are not in contact with the well-being of the breathing at all.
Counting the Breaths
Counting the breaths is very popular, even in the Kagyu tradition. You count every out-breath up to ten, and then you count back down to one. That seems to be the starting point of learning how to be able to relate with space and the outgoing breath. The counting makes special note that breathing is going out, even if your breathing is shallow or rough. The outgoing breathing has a label, it is named by numbers, but the incoming breath has no label: it is just preparing to count one, two, three, and so forth. So each lime you count, one part of the breathing is more emphasized than the other. That is the counting technique.
However, I don't think counting the breaths is necessary, and in fact your concentration may be weakened by using the counting technique. If you are having difficulty meditating, the problem is that you do not sufficiently experience being there. Therefore, Jamgon Kongtriil recommended that if you really experience that quality of being, even if you have difficulty handling the awareness of breathing, you have no problem, so it is not necessary to count. I have been trying to follow his direction in emphasizing a sense of being.
Mindfulness of breathing is a way of creating obstacles to subconscious dreams and mental activities. The technique of mindfulness of breathing should provide obstacles. It is a nuisance that you have to keep hassling back to the breath. However, unless you are able to do that efficiently, you will not get properly bored, and if you do not get properly bored, you will not be in tune with the power of the practice. Everything may be happening very smoothly on the surface level, but you are not in tune with the magic of meditation practice or the spiritual energy of the lineage.
Boredom is important because boredom is anti-credential, anti-entertainment—and as we develop greater psychological sophistication, we begin to appreciate such boredom. It becomes cool and refreshing, like a mountain river. That very real and genuine boredom, or "cool boredom," plays an extremely important role. In fact, we could quite simply say that the barometer of our accomplishment in meditation practice is how much boredom we create for ourselves. Cool boredom is rather light boredom: it has its uneasy quality, but at the same time it is not a big deal. Cool boredom is simply another expression of the experience of well-being. Cool boredom is like what mountains experience. With cool boredom, thought processes become less entertaining—they become transparent. Cool boredom is hopelessness at its most absolute level.
From “The Path of Individual Liberation” ChogyamTrungpa
Touch and Go
Touch is the sense of existence, that you are who you. are. You have a certain name and you feel a certain way when you sit on the cushion. You feel that you actually exist.... That is the touch part. The go part is that you do not hang on to that. You do not sustain your sense of being, but you let go of it.
The attitude that brings about the possibility of mindfulness is mind's awareness of itself. Your mind is aware of itself, which means that you are aware that you are aware. Mindfulness is based on a sense of being and individuality. It is not mechanical. As an individual person, you relate with what is happening around you. We could use the phrase "touch and go." You touch or contact the experience of actually being there, then you let go. That touch-and-go process applies to your awareness of your breath and also to your awareness of day-to-day living. Touch is the sense of existence, that you are who you are. You have a certain name and you feel a certain way when you sit on the cushion. You feel that you actually exist. It doesn't take too much encouragement to develop that kind of attitude. You have a sense that you are there and you are sitting. That is the touch part. The go part is that you do not hang on to that. You do not sustain your sense of being, but you let go of it.
When you touch, you should experience that thoroughly, two hundred percent rather than one hundred percent. If you are committed two hundred percent, which is more than normal, you have a chance to let go, and you might end up experiencing one hundred percent. However, if you hang on to that awareness, touch becomes grasping. So you touch and go. You do not try to experience the whole thing, but you just let go of yourself completely, halfway through the experience. The approach of touch and go is not so much trying to experience, but trying to be.
Experience is not particularly important. Experience always comes up as long as you touch. But you don't hang on to your experience; you let it go. You intentionally disown it. That seems to be the basic point of touch and go. Clinging to experience reminds me of the pain of having a tick on the neck: if the tick gets too fat, it will die on your body, so you have to pull it out in order to save its life. Our state of mind is like a tick that doesn't have an outlet and always bottles things up. If we cling to experience constantly and don't let go, we are going to be gigantic, enormous. If we bottle up everything within ourselves, we cannot even move! We cannot play with life anymore because we are so fat.
A Sense of Being
In mindfulness practice, in touch and go, there is a sensation of individuality, of personhood. You are actually here: you exist. You might question that approach and think, "What about the Buddhist doctrine of nonexistence or egolessness? What about the issue of spiritual materialism? What's going to happen to me if I practice this? Isn't this some kind of pitfall?" Maybe it is, maybe it is not. There is no guarantee since there is no guarantor. I would recommend that you do not worry about future security. Just do touch and go directly and simply. Traditionally, such problems are taken care of by the sangha and the guru, somebody unshakable who minds your business. When you commit yourself to the dharma, you are asking somebody to mind your business, which could happen very heavy-handedly. So you do not need to feel too much concern about future security.
Acknowledging States of Mind
A further touch is necessary. Touch is not simply the general awareness of being. It also applies to mindfulness of your individual states of mind. That is, your mental state of aggression or lust also has to be touched. Such states have to be acknowledged. However, you do not just acknowledge them and push them off. You need to look at them without suppression or shying away. In that way, you actually have the experience of being utterly aggressive or utterly lustful. You don't just politely say, "Hi, good-bye. It's nice seeing you again, but I want to get back to my breath." That would be like meeting an old friend and saying, "Excuse me, I have to catch the train and make my next appointment." Such an approach is somewhat deceptive. In shamatha, you don't just sign off. You acknowledge what is happening and you look at it.
The basic point of shamatha is not to give yourself an easy time so you can escape the embarrassing, unpleasant, or self-conscious moments of your life, whether they arise as painful memories of the past, painful experiences of the present, or painful future prospects. When such thoughts arise, you could experience them, look at them, and then come back to your breath. This is extremely important.
It is possible to twist the logic, and relate to meditating and coming back to the breath as a way of avoiding problems, but such avoidance is itself a problem. You might feel good that you are sanctioned by the Buddha and you have the technique of mindfulness, which is extremely kosher, good, sensible, and real. You might think that you don't have to pay attention to all those little embarrassments that happen in your life; instead, you could regard them as unimportant and come back to the breath. However, in doing so, you are patching over your problems. You are bottling them up and keeping them as your family heirloom. Since this kind of attitude can develop, it is very important to look at those embarrassments and then come back to the breath. However, in doing so, there is no implication that if you do look at them, that is going to be freedom or the end of the game.
Your greatest problem is not that you are an aggressive or lusty person. The problem is that you would like to bottle those things up and put them aside. You have become an expert in deception. Meditation practice is supposed to uncover any attempts to develop a more subtle, sophisticated form of deception. It is important to realize that basic point and to work with it. So you should experience your aggressive thoughts; you should look at them. This does not mean that you are going to execute those thoughts. In feet, we do not execute more than five or ten percent of our thoughts, including our dreams, so there is a big gap. When you do act, unless you have looked at such thoughts, you will not act properly. However, if you look at your aggressive thoughts, you do not usually put them into practice, but they dwindle.