Our Pristine Mind: A Practical Guide to Unconditional Happiness (2016)
Meditation: The Journey Deeper into Pristine Mind
12. EXPERIENCES AND OBSTACLES IN MEDITATION
IN THIS CHAPTER we’ll continue to walk through the experience of the formal meditation session and look at what occurs—the good and bad experiences that arise—and I’ll advise how to relate to those different experiences. What happens when you are remaining in Pristine Mind meditation? For example, during meditation, if you hear a noise, what should you do? If thoughts arise, what should you do? This is what we will address now.
NOISE PASSES THROUGH YOUR AWARENESS
There is a significant difference between the experience of Pristine Mind meditation and that of other forms of meditation, especially practices that focus on an object. If our meditation involves focusing on a single object, as in mindfulness meditation, then noises or other external distractions can take us away from that focus. But when our mind is not focused on any particular thing, then that noise just passes through our awareness without interrupting our meditation at all. When we try to hold our mind on one point by focusing on a particular object in meditation, then our awareness is not expansive but is limited to that one object. But when we are remaining in Pristine Mind and not holding our attention to any particular object, our awareness permeates the entire space we are in. All sound just passes through our awareness, but it does not capture our attention or limit our awareness. After a certain point, when we are remaining in Pristine Mind, sensory inputs from the external world do not affect us.
This may not happen immediately, but the more familiar you get with Pristine Mind meditation, the less you are distracted by noise and other outer stimuli. You may want to start your meditation practice by deliberately reducing exterior distractions. It can be helpful to meditate in a quiet place without the sounds of ringing phones, televisions, and outside traffic, construction, or other street noise. Even experienced meditators derive a great advantage from going into a formal solitary retreat where outside interference is minimized. But accomplished meditators are less affected by outside stimuli; with enough experience, it will not matter whether you are in the noisy city or the quiet countryside, because you will have developed stability in Pristine Mind.
In addition to receiving impressions from the external environment, meditators frequently feel inundated by thoughts. Just having thoughts is not a problem for Pristine Mind practitioners. It does not mean we are not good at meditation. Instead, it is following, interpreting, and judging our thoughts that are the problem. Having thoughts come up is normal. We are used to having thoughts arise all the time. Having thoughts is a natural tendency. When thoughts appear, do not worry. Simply don’t follow, judge, or interpret them. If we just remain in pristine awareness when we have thoughts, our thoughts will naturally dissolve by themselves.
There is no effort required to do this. We are not trying to create any specific experience. All we are doing is remaining in that calm state of being present, noticing our awareness. There is no effort involved in trying to make anything happen. We are not meditating on that state; we are just in it. The more we engage in this meditation, the more we simply feel ourselves in that state. Then our ordinary mental events cannot pull us one way or another. They cannot move us from that state of pure awareness.
In a way, it is not quite accurate to use the word “meditation” in talking about Pristine Mind meditation, because “meditation” suggests an action—that is, trying to accomplish something. In any type of object-based meditation, we are trying to do something. For example, in meditation on the breath, the whole point is to focus on breathing. We can say we meditate on the breath because in that type of practice, we are focusing on the breath. But in Pristine Mind meditation, there is no action or effort involved, and we are not meditating or focusing on anything. We are simply abiding in our awareness. We do not move away from that awareness unless we let ourselves get caught up in mental events. If we notice a mental event, we just let it pass, and it will not disturb our awareness.
The more we have access to and remain in this pristine state of mind, the more our mind becomes free of mental events and mental pollution, and the more we have the wonderful, beautiful experience of the mind remaining in its natural state. We are not meditating on anything. Instead there is the state of Pristine Mind that we are in.
CALM AND CLEAR
We can think of the four steps that Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava teaches us as constituting “meditation.” But when we have followed that progression of four steps and we are in the pristine state, then we let go of all methods. We are no longer employing a technique at that point; we are just remaining in that state. It is no longer a technique; it is real meditation. Pristine Mind meditation.
Dzogchen Master Shabkar says:
There is nothing to focus upon.
Rest your mind in an astonished, spacious, boundless state.
Release your mind into a wide-open expanse.
Do not elaborate or contrive.
Allow your awareness to abide nakedly.
Each day when we meditate, we should remember that what we are doing is remaining in that state. Remaining in that state is much more natural than trying to meditate on something. Even the body language associated with these different types of practices is very different. When we are meditating on an object, the body tends to stiffen as a result of our concentrated focus. When we are abiding in a pristine state, the body remains more relaxed and natural. We can see this directly.
As mentioned earlier, some meditators practice with eyes closed in order to encourage a feeling of peace and relaxation. In contrast, our goal in Pristine Mind meditation is not just to achieve a momentary feeling of peace or relaxation; it is to go beyond our mental events and access Pristine Mind. We perform Pristine Mind meditation with the eyes open so that there is a more alert and aware quality to the practice. In Dzogchen, this quality is often referred to as “naked awareness.” It is the aware quality of the untainted state of mind that is the essence of our meditation journey. That aware quality is a natural part of us; we are not separate from it. It is not something we have achieved. It is something that we are. It is this we are referring to when we explain the importance of finding out who we truly are. We begin to see that this calm, clear mind is our most natural experience. It is our true identity.
Our awareness has no restrictions. There are no boundaries in our mind. There is no self-consciousness or hesitation in that moment. We feel very open, relaxed, and blissful because our agitations no longer feel like a part of who we are.
It is very important to understand that the more we do Pristine Mind meditation, the more our immediate experience is pristine, clear, calm, and boundless. Ultimately, we will experience that to be the main characteristic of our mind.
This does not mean that during our Pristine Mind meditation session, we are supposed to experience a feel-good, pleasurable quality, or great love or compassion. There are specific meditation techniques for generating compassion, devotion, and other positive mental qualities. However, during Pristine Mind meditation, we just leave our mind alone. We don’t try to generate positive feelings, and we don’t linger over them if they occur. Pleasurable feelings are distractions. Both positive and negative thoughts and feelings are distractions. Feelings of generosity, devotion, compassion, and love for others during Pristine Mind meditation are distractions. Even thinking about the Buddha is a distraction at that time. Both white clouds and dark clouds obscure the pure blue sky.
Of course, after a formal session of meditation is over, we need to interact with our thoughts, emotions, and feelings. Outside our meditation sessions, we need to deal with circumstances; we need to analyze and understand past events, and make plans for the future. And we can engage in other techniques to increase our positive qualities. But as we become more familiar with Pristine Mind in meditation, we find that after meditation, our thoughts naturally become more positive and we have more control over our thoughts and emotions. Our thoughts have less of a feeling of solidity, less of a sense of concrete, unchanging reality. Our world becomes more malleable. We retain a boundless, clear quality in our mind in which compassion, love, and other positive qualities can thrive. Our feelings are less and less dependent on external conditions. Increasingly, we are gradually integrating meditation with daily life.
If we do not know that our mind is naturally pristine, then any calm, clear, or positive experiences or any sense of well-being we have are only temporary. So long as we still identify our self as the fundamentally negative, restless, or agitated ordinary mind, then our calmness or clarity is only momentary. We feel calm or clear for a few moments and then it disappears because we still identify that polluted, ordinary mind as who we are. Whatever calmness, clarity, spaciousness, tranquillity, or inner peace we experience are all temporary because we view those experiences as just moments arising against the backdrop of a complicated polluted mind. When we become more familiar with our Pristine Mind, then we know that who we really are is calm, clear, and boundless, and it is our negative experiences that become the momentary ones.
Just being told about these different experiences is of limited value. The only way to truly experience Pristine Mind is by meditating in Pristine Mind. Our understanding must be made real through meditation training and experience.
When people have anxiety, fear, anger, sorrow, and unhappiness, their mind is overcast. It is clouded over with thoughts. In that kind of cloudy mind, it is easy to get upset, to develop anxiety, to become unhappy. In a mind that has been habitually distorted and cloudy for a long time, reactions are triggered very easily. The disturbed mind feels volatile and is therefore fundamentally unreliable.
When one’s mind is more open and clear, however, with fewer tendencies toward mental events, we say that it is more awakened or more pristine. In that state, anxiety, anger, or other negative reactions are not triggered as easily. Those types of reactions simply do not happen so readily, because the mind has greater stability.
If our mind is like a clear blue sky, it is less likely that it will be drenched by stormy emotions. If there are no thick clouds in our mind, if our mind is just a little bit cloudy, that is not an insurmountable problem. There may be a few clouds, but it does not rain. But if our mind is completely overcast, it rains very easily. Some people’s minds are thickly overcast. Some people’s minds even produce thunder and lightning. But a mildly hazy mind is something that can be worked through relatively easily with Pristine Mind meditation.
We can meditate with haziness and the meditation is still valuable; we can still make progress. The mind may be hazy at that moment, not completely pristine, but with meditation we are becoming increasingly familiar with what a clearer and clearer mind is. Our mind may still be hazy with mental events. But even when there are some clouds, we can still see the blue sky, at least to some extent.
When our mind is hazy, even though all mental events may not be completely gone, we can still access our Pristine Mind to some degree. So remember, when we meditate as a beginner, if our mind is hazy it is still fine. In this hazy state, thoughts and emotions do not overwhelm us. While we cannot meditate effectively with a completely overcast mind, very, very few meditators practicing Pristine Mind meditation have a completely pristine state of mind at first. Most have a hazy mind. Still, we learn that the mind is pristine innately, and we have a glimpse of that pristine experience. We have a view of that state through a thinning layer of clouds of thoughts and emotions. Eventually those clouds burn off. Slowly our mental events become less dominant and our hazy mind becomes a flawless Pristine Mind.
Pristine Mind meditation will even benefit a person with a mind full of thunder, lightning, and stormy weather. With diligent practice, the mental weather can calm down, going from stormy to overcast, from overcast to slightly cloudy, and ultimately, from hazy to flawlessly pristine.
DO NOT LINGER OVER MENTAL EVENTS
We do not need to have a completely pristine state of mind during meditation. Our mind may not always be like a completely blue sky. Do not worry. Until we reach completely perfect enlightenment, there are always some clouds in our minds. Even when our mind is remaining relatively pristine in meditation, some mental events still pass through. But having mental events occur is not a problem. For beginning meditation practitioners it is normal for thoughts to occur. You may think as you meditate, “I have so many thoughts. Meditation is not working.” But, as we have said, having thoughts is not really a problem or an indication that meditation is not working. We are not trying to stop thoughts in our meditation. Rest assured, no matter how hard you try, they will not stop! They occur naturally. What we need to do is not follow the mental events that occur and not get caught up in them. If we pursue our thoughts and emotions, or get embroiled in them, then they become an obstacle and we will lose our meditation. As long as we don’t get involved in our mental events, even if we have some thoughts here or there, we are still meditating well. The most we can do, and really all we need to do, is remain in Pristine Mind and leave our mind alone.
When you find yourself following your thoughts, simply come back to your pristine state of mind. No one can stop thinking all at once. We only need to be concerned if we get so caught up in a stream of thoughts, with one thought leading to another thought, that we lose track of Pristine Mind and become stuck in mental events.
We may get involved in thoughts from time to time; it is not a big problem. We simply need to return our mind to its naturally pristine state. With time, if we do this, our meditation will gradually improve, and eventually we will succeed in maintaining our mind in its pristine state despite the occasional passage of thoughts.
It is important for the beginner to realize that being in the pristine state of mind does not mean that we lose our awareness of sounds or other sensations. We may be meditating together with a group of people. When we rest in Pristine Mind and someone in the room coughs, for example, we are not oblivious to it. We hear the sound of a cough and we might even say to ourselves, “Oh, someone coughed.” But if we let that thought go and continue to remain in Pristine Mind, our meditation is progressing well. That event passes and is gone.
But if we think, “Did somebody cough? Who was it that coughed? Oh, it was him. Why would he cough so loudly? I wonder what’s wrong with him?” then we have lost Pristine Mind; we are caught up in a chain of mental events. That does not mean that we cannot acknowledge the bare fact that somebody made a noise. We are not oblivious to such things while remaining in Pristine Mind. We just do not get involved in any further interpretation of that experience. We hear it and acknowledge that the sound happens, but then we just remain in Pristine Mind without having to interpret or play out a story line about it. There is a huge difference between just hearing the sound of somebody coughing and playing out a whole stream of thoughts about that sound.
OVERCOMING OBSTACLES IN MEDITATION
All of the obstacles that people encounter during their meditation sessions can be put into two categories: dullness and distraction. You experience dullness when you are too focused inwardly and your mind gets sleepy, drowsy, and unclear. If you feel drowsy during meditation, you may get absorbed into the drowsiness and then get still drowsier or fall asleep. When that happens, you need to shift your gaze upward and make your mind more alert. You can drink some water or splash cold water on your neck or face, or go outside to refresh yourself. You need to wake yourself up and continue meditating. If you struggle with this, open your eyes a little wider. Increase your alertness so that your awareness does not feel clouded by the film of drowsiness. Just restore an awakened state and then remain in Pristine Mind. This will combat the dullness, drowsiness, and sleepiness that can sometimes be a pitfall in meditation.
The other major obstacle during meditation is distraction. Sometimes the mind is too wild. It is all over the place and cannot remain present. It follows after any sounds or sensations. It is overactive. It is as though hundreds of thoughts are buzzing around, overwhelming you, making it impossible to stay still within Pristine Mind. Your mind is overcome with restless energy. When that happens, gaze down past the end of your nose. Look downward and have your eyes less widely open. They should not be entirely closed, just not as widely open. Then you can focus a little bit deeper within and simply rest. This can help your mind stay calm and relaxed.
Initially, if there is a distracting sound, it is normal to be pulled in the direction of that noise. That happens to everybody and you should not be disappointed or feel as if you have failed at meditation. Your meditation experience is not yet like the Buddha’s. You are not highly realized yet, so your mind will react to and follow in the direction of that sound.
Whatever sensations arise—the sight of moving shapes or blinking lights, changes in temperature, sounds from the street, an itch on your skin—your mind will go to them. All beginning meditation practitioners share these common experiences. It’s not a bad sign; it is entirely normal. You should not feel concerned, discouraged, or upset. You need to learn not to get drawn too far away and not to get lost in the experiences of the five senses. Just come back to your Pristine Mind and simply leave your mind alone.
In addition to shifting your gaze to relieve dullness and distraction, you can also use the direction of your gaze to modulate your mental energy in meditation. Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava says that if you get tired of gazing in one direction, you can shift your gaze up or down, or right or left, to help support the proper quality of awareness. This can also help if you feel bored or if you become tired of gazing with eyes fixed. It does not matter how you shift your gaze, as long as you continue to remain in Pristine Mind.
DON’T GIVE UP
Pristine Mind meditation requires training. Suppose, for example, that we decide to take up hiking, an activity we have never done before. If we start off taking very long hikes in the mountains without prior practice and training, we should not be surprised that our legs hurt. We have not used them in this way before. We have never walked very much, so when we do walk a lot, all of a sudden our muscles tighten and we get sore. That is natural. But if we keep at it for a month, the muscle pains will go away because we will be trained to walk.
In the same way, when we first sit down to meditate, we might easily become discouraged because there are all these thoughts racing through our mind. But we should not give up for that reason. Just as in walking, if we have muscle pains at first and say, “Okay, I give up, I’m not a walker,” then we will never get in shape—in the same way, when we sit down to meditate and we say, “Oh, I have too many thoughts; I guess I’m not a meditator,” we will never experience our Pristine Mind or achieve unconditional happiness. We must practice to get beyond that initial experience of having so many thoughts. If we are diligent, the number of thoughts and other mental events will diminish. We must stick with it, however, and always return our mind to its pristine state as best we can. Increasingly we will be able to remain in that pristine state of mind.
Don’t become easily discouraged. If you never try to go beyond that stage of initial discouragement because there are thoughts arising in your meditation, you are never going to have the true experiences of meditation. You need to go beyond that initial stage. You need to keep trying. If you keep making that effort to go beyond that initial discouragement, you will arrive at the experience of not getting caught up in your thoughts and mental events.
Sometimes you may even observe an increase in the frequency of thoughts. When that happens, don’t get discouraged. My enlightened master Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche says:
One sign that your meditation is beginning to be effective is that both subtle thoughts and obvious thoughts become more noticeable than before. This is not a bad sign; it’s a good sign. When water rushes in a strong river current, you don’t see the fish or rocks beneath the rapids. But when the current slows and the water becomes clear, then you can see the fish, the rocks, and everything below the surface distinctly. Similarly, if you never pay attention to your mind, and your thoughts and emotions are uncontrolled, you don’t even know how many thoughts go by. But when your mind becomes more stable and calm, you begin to see your thoughts more clearly. Don’t be discouraged. Take heart at this sign. Don’t hold yourself too loosely or too tightly. Maintain your meditation in the right way without concern and gradually your meditation experience will increase and stabilize.
Remember: Do not follow the past. Do not anticipate the future. Remain in the present moment. Leave your mind alone. Those four simple, straightforward instructions give us a chance to go beyond our mental events and, eventually, to experience the natural state of mind.
At our beginners’ level we need to meditate with diligence and enthusiasm because the winds of mental events are very strong. Once the winds of mental events die down and subside, meditation becomes effortless. Once our meditation gains momentum, once we get to cruising altitude, our meditation becomes natural. We are just in that state. We no longer have to meditate with effort. Really, it is not that difficult. When we are not lost in the past or future, when we are just there in Pristine Mind, that’s the goal of meditation: to effortlessly abide in Pristine Mind in every moment.
One of the obstacles to beginners’ progress in Pristine Mind meditation is the tendency to get lazy. We may find ourselves thinking, “This is too hard. I’m not really capable. I don’t have enough time to get good at this. I’ll get back to this some other time.” The lack of obvious results from our efforts may lead to discouragement. This is just our ordinary mind at work.
To avoid and counteract this discouragement that can lead to laziness, we need to remember, contemplate, and ponder the four fundamental facts we discussed in part one—the rare and precious opportunity of human birth; the changeable nature of existence; the consequences of our actions; and the discomforts of existence. We need to think about these things all the time, not just when we sit to meditate. And we need to integrate our understanding of these facts into our daily life, reminding ourselves that everything that occurs is an opportunity to choose between mental events and Pristine Mind. Contemplating these fundamental facts will help to overcome laziness and inspire our sincere and enthusiastic practice.
THE GROWING GAP BETWEEN MENTAL EVENTS
As we meditate regularly, over time, the gap or space between mental events becomes gradually wider. At first that gap is very small. The more we remain in that clear, present, boundless pristine state, the more that time between mental events expands. Eventually, it may last for twenty or thirty minutes, or even one hour. Then, for two hours after we meditate, there may be fewer mental events or no mental events, no heaviness in our mind. That means for those two hours we are in a blissful, relaxed, joyful state. As we get more and more familiar with our Pristine Mind and being in this really comfortable state without many mental events, we truly appreciate our meditation practice.
At first the heavier, denser, more frustrating and more rigid mental events dissolve. Then, gradually, the subtler thoughts and emotions disappear as well. The wider the gap between these mental events becomes, the more our inner nature, the pristine state of mind, who we really are, surfaces. This is the awakening and blossoming of our true nature.
The wider the gap between mental events becomes, the closer we are to enlightenment.
Creativity originates within this open gap. Once our mind is pristine, open, and boundless, we can express our originality spontaneously and naturally, unbound by our culture or belief systems. We can also deal with other aspects of life more easily because there is room in our mind and there are no internal mental conflicts. We can connect with people easily when we are that comfortable. Even if people we are talking with have a strong negative emotional reaction, we do not feel any need to react in kind. It is not because we are trying not to react, but because our mind is in a calm and pristine state. Often our calmer mind will make the other person feel calmer as well.
Once there is a significant gap between mental events, there is no obstacle to connecting with others. We are more open, more connected, more authentic. There are no elaborations or contrivances. What we say and do comes from who we really are, not who we pretend to be. As we remain in Pristine Mind for longer periods of time, for two or three or four hours, being connected to that state becomes our normal experience. The tendency to generate mental events is no longer a part of our mental and emotional experience. As our experience of Pristine Mind grows and expands, such tendencies shrink and fade. Mipham Rinpoche says, ”If you practice even one week of meditation, the frequency of your mental and emotional impulses goes down.” In the meditation retreats I have led for many years, I have witnessed the noticeable impact that even four or five days of meditation practice has had on my students’ lives.
If we practice Pristine Mind meditation for just one month, we will notice even more improvement. Most of our stronger tendencies to create mental events and respond to them will subside significantly. We just need to understand how to get there. It’s so simple: we just need to leave our mind alone. That is it. It is not a complicated solution.
Meditation is the best method for working with our mind. It is not a harsh treatment. Everything heals very naturally. And it is pleasurable, too. Meditation is like swimming. Some people enjoy swimming in the water; meditators enjoy swimming in Pristine Mind. Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava says:
Just like a great ocean undisturbed by wind, the nature of reality is expansive and calm; abide without agitation in the same way.
Just like a bird that leaves no trace in its flight through the sky, abide in your natural mind in the same way.