Monday, August 3, 2009

Look at Your Mind

There are almost as many different kinds of Buddhist meditation practice as there are practicing Buddhists. But roughly speaking, they can all be grouped into two types, called (in the Tibetan tradition) shamatha and vipashyana.

The first, shamatha (usually translated as "calm abiding" or "peaceful abiding"), is concerned with cultivating the mind's natural stability and calmness, its ability to stay present and to remain aware of what is happening here and now. When we practice shamatha, we come face-to-face with our own mind's strong habitual tendencies towards distraction and discursiveness, towards every type of mental chatter and commentary, and towards disturbing emotional states. To our dismay, we come to see how much time we typically spend lost in trains of thought that are largely concerned with reviewing the past or speculating about the future or commenting discursively upon the present, which are all ways of distancing ourselves from our actual experience here and now. Slowly, and sometimes painfully, we practice at recognizing whenever these tendencies have pulled us away from the object of our meditation, and simply coming back, again and again and again, to natural presence. Our minds are like willful and unruly dogs, and in shamatha we simply train the dogs to stay...stay...stay.

Uncovering our mind's natural ability to stay present and calm and relaxed is a huge step forward on the spiritual path; it can bring a sense of joy and contentment and purpose to our lives. But we can also grow overly attached to the tranquility we discover in shamatha meditation, forgetting that it's a necessary step along the path but not the whole path. To gain true liberation from suffering, we need to do more than steady and calm our minds -- we need to apply the calm, steady mind to see through our own delusions and develop a clear and genuine understanding of reality. That's where vipashyana (usually translated as "clear seeing" or "higher seeing" or "insight meditation") comes in.

Without getting caught in attachment to shamatha's pool
May vipashyana's flowers burst into open bloom

-- Milarepa

Tenzin Palmo is a Buddhist nun from England who spent twelve years meditating in strict solitary retreat in an isolated cave high up in the Himalayas. She describes this process of moving from shamatha to vipashyana with the metaphor of a film projector. We normally experience the world -- and even practice shamatha meditation -- as if we were sitting in a movie theater, looking outward and focusing on whatever images are projected on the screen of the phenomenal world in front of us. In vipashyana practice, however, we turn our attention around, no longer hypnotized by the images in front of us, and we look at the actual projector of the mind and at the clear light that is streaming through it. We turn our mind inward, as it were, and look directly at the looker.

This business of looking directly at the mind is extremely tricky. It is a bit like the eyeballs trying to see themselves -- which is obviously impossible. The "looking," in this case, is not a visual sort of looking, but an open inquiry into the nature of our own experience. We simply try to observe the observer, to experience that which is experiencing. But we very quickly discover that mind is a slippery fish, and as soon as we think we've caught it by the tail, we are probably mistaken. What we see when we look directly at the mind is that mind itself is a baffling paradox, a "mystery wrapped in an enigma" as the cliche goes.

Where is the mind? Is it inside or outside the body? What is mind's relationship to the body? What is mind made of? How do we experience it? Does it have color or shape or form, or any kind of substantial characteristics at all? Does it have a location? Does it start or end somewhere that we can pinpoint?

As we investigate the mind through exploring such questions in meditation, all our previously held viewpoints about the mind and the "self" begin to tremble and fall apart under the pressure of analysis. Finally, we see that they were only a pitiful facade of baseless assumptions and inferences to begin with, and we are left with a naked experience of mind that defies conventional logic and rationality. When we look at the mind in this way, not only do we *not* see what we probably expected to see -- we don't actually see anything at all (at least nothing we can put our finger on). Milarepa, the legendary Tibetan master of Mahamudra meditation from the eleventh century CE, said that when we see this -- or, rather, when we don't see it -- all that remains to do is to simply let go and relax into that very mystery of being, the enigma of awareness itself.

Throughout the day and night, look at your mind.
When you look at your mind, you don't see anything.
When you don't see anything, let go and relax.

-- Milarepa

Great masters of meditation such as Milarepa or His Holiness the Karmapa are able, it is said, to remain in this state of relaxed awareness 24 hours a day, even while they sleep. Discursive thoughts and emotions are no longer capable of throwing these masters off the horse of mind; horse and rider have become one. For the rest of us, squeezing meditation in-between our day jobs and our hectic lives, perhaps an occasional glimpse of mind's natural state arises, and then disappears. But even a single glimpse can transform and motivate us, leaving an enduring taste in our mouths for enlightenment.

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