Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on July 1, 2014

Meditation and dharma practice is about becoming more aware, but aware of what?

Ultimately (as the Tibetan Buddhists tell us) we seek to become aware of the true nature of the mind, whatever that is. If we have to ask then we don't know; that's what we have yet to find out. However, between that and where we are today is a sea of our own endless thoughts and obscurations, literally everything standing between our current state and realizing the unobstructed nature of the mind. That's why we practice.

What this boils down to is that before we can see the actual nature of the mind, we will first see everything in-between, all that obscures our mind, and for most of us, that is a lot. If the mind is veiled by our accumulated obscurations, obviously we first have to remove those obscurations if we want true clarity.

And we can't just ignore our obscurations because that is exactly what we have been doing up to now. We would be right back where we started from. Instead of ignoring what obstructs us, through meditation, we learn first to be aware of our obscurations, and eventually how to remove them.

And this is something that affects how we go about learning mind training. We perhaps sit down to meditate with the expectation that we will see more clearly after the session, yet when we look inward, often what we begin to see first are our own obscurations. The mind is filled with these and the clarity is not yet there. This may not be what we led ourselves to expect when we think of peaceful meditation, but this is the reality.

In other words, standing between enlightenment and myself are all my own obscurations that I have accumulated (and maintain) since who knows when. In other words, when we attempt to look inward at the mind, what we first see are all our attachments, likes and dislikes, everything else but the actual nature of the mind. This is old news.

If we don't like what we see (and mostly we don't) and turn away, no progress will be made. Witnessing all the confusion and craziness going on inside us is a good sign that we ARE making progress. If we begin to look inward, we should expect to encounter whatever obscures our inner vision as a first step in meditation training. As they say, watch that first step, it’s a doozy. This simply means that until we deal with our own obscurations, things will not get any clearer, and that by definition.

Newcomers to meditation, who emerge from their sitting meditation saying how peaceful they feel and all that, probably haven't been doing any real looking or meditation. They are just relaxing a bit, and there are all kinds of relaxation therapies. Meditation is something that has to be learned and learning takes effort. Effort involves trying and that itself is trying.

If we look, we will see, and what we see is all of the mental bric-a-brac that we so successfully ignore the rest of the time. If we allow the mind to just rest, we begin to be aware of all our mental obscurations; they just naturally start to come up.

So beginning meditation, what is called Shamata meditation, helps us to be mindful and allows the mind to rest. However, when the mind rests, whatever has been suppressed, ignored, or held at bay just naturally rises into consciousness when it is free to do that. After all, we have been shutting it out for…. ever.

Another way to say this is that we live in a kind of prison of our own making. The very persona that we call a self holds everything we know, love, and are attached to inside us and it tries to keep everything we don't know and don't like outside and as far away from us as possible. As they say these days, "How's that workin' for you?"

This firewall of our own attachments prevents us from seeing through our self into what is beyond, the mind itself. The good news is that this wall of attachments, what we loosely call our "self," is self-made. We made it up and we can gradually begin to deconstruct it, trading bad attachments for better ones, and turn better ones into no attachments at all. In the end our self will still be there, but we won't be that attached to it. This is the kind of thing dharma practice is designed to do, thin out our attachments until we can see the mind itself. It is like the sun coming up.

Experiencing our own craziness instead of the peaceful mental state we may have expected when we sat down to meditate is normal. In fact this is the perfect sign that we are doing something right. At least in beginning meditation, the more we can relax and allow the mind to rest, the more we will become aware of all the obscuring material within us. As we learn to allow the mind to rest, our obscurations will begin to be released and rise into view. The question becomes: what are we to do with all this material?

As we find ourselves distracted by whatever thoughts arise, simple Shamata meditation technique instructs us to let these thoughts go, note the distraction, bring the mind back to the object of meditation (our breath, a pebble, a twig, etc.), and allow our gaze to rest again on that. We endlessly start over. That is Shamata meditation.

Thoughts come and, as we are aware of them, we let them go. We don't follow any thought that arises, much less allow it to turn into a train of thought. And when we do realize we are following a thought, you know, sitting there just thinking, we let that thought go on its way, and gently bring our attention back to resting on whatever object we are using as a focus.

As pointed out earlier (or at least alluded to), we have more than just thoughts going on in there. We also have reactions, and probably not just a few. Our seeming-endless likes and dislikes cause us to react to them, one by one, or sometimes in bursts. And every reaction is like a little tidal wave, a mini shock to the clarity of the mind. That's what reactions invoke and they are to be distinguished from responses. Much of dharma mind training is about recognizing our reactions and learning to respond appropriately instead of just reacting involuntarily.

As I see it, these are the two kinds of dharma practice that we most need, Shamata to train the mind to relax and yet be mindful, and reaction-training to begin to disarm the hoard of knee-jerk reactions we have accumulated and that we continually reinstate.

These two meditation techniques are not difficult to learn. What can be difficult is that when we make an effort to meditate and find ourselves surrounded by a swarm of our own reactions and thoughts, to resist the desire to turn back and give up. Instead, just push on through that swarm like we would a cloud of mosquitoes. Keep going! Meditation can be a hard start, but once it gets rolling that all works for you.