Three approaches to mindful attention, on and off the cushion


There are many forms of meditation. In this article you will find a list of ways to meditate in order to develop the ability to fully attend, to mindfully do whatever you do with your family, your friends, your colleagues, your children and yourself.

I.  Zazen

Zazen is the study of the self. Master Dogen said, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened. Upon his own enlightenment, the Buddha was in seated meditation.

Zen practice returns to the same seated meditation again and again. For two thousand five hundred years that meditation has continued, from generation to generation; it’s the most important thing that has been passed on.”

I find the best way to forget my self is to be fully attentive to the person I am with or the task I am doing–whether it be baking bread, washing dishes, writing articles or giving online counseling. It is a wonderful feeling to forget my self and really tune into others.

II.  Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is about learning to experience life fully as it unfolds, moment by moment, an invitation to wake up, to experience the fullness of life, and to transform your relationship with problems, fears, pain and stress so that you improve the quality of your life, your creativity and your mental states.

Mindfulness, off the cushion, is about being fully present to your thoughts, your feelings, and your actions. It has been said that being mindful is easy, remembering to be mindful is what is difficult.

I find associating mindfulness with checking the time is a good way to remember to be mindful. Other associations can work too — each time you have a cup of coffee or tea, or setting the alarm on your watch to go off each hour are ways to remember mindfulness. You can even download a mindfulness bell on your computer to remind you to be mindful as you are working.

Through the practice of mindfulness, you can learn to develop greater calmness, clarity and insight in facing and embracing all your experiences, even life’s trials, and turn them into occasions for learning, growing and deepening your own strength and wisdom.

III.  Dzogchen

The practice of Dzogchen is to remember that our ultimate nature is pure, primordial awareness. Our nature becomes a mirror that reflects with complete openness but is not affected by the reflections, or like a crystal ball that takes on the colour of the material on which it is placed without itself being changed.

In the practice of Dzogchen we are not distracted by (do not follow) thoughts – we allow awareness to effortlessly emanate. This pristine awareness is what Tibetans refer to as rigpa, or “ground luminosity”.

This state is very helpful when we are listening to others. Rather than judging or comparing or offering advice, we see the pureness of the person who is talking, the pureness in us meets the pureness in others.

So, bring what you learn in your sitting meditation “off the cushion” into your daily life and you will be meditating, mindful and attentive.

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Sitting without a sitter: the practice of “Just Sitting”

When I was on my first ever meditation retreat — two weeks of intensive meditation in the Scottish Highlands — I’d sometimes hear the instruction, “And now we’ll just sit.” No further instruction was given! And we’d sit there for a period of time — maybe ten minutes, maybe thirty minutes.

It was at first deeply confusing. I was sitting there waiting for further instruction. I wanted to be told what to do. Then I’d get bored and restless. Thoughts would come and go and I’d get caught up in them.

As the retreat went on sometimes those thoughts would begin to clear, and the mind would become alive and yet alive and vibrant. I wasn’t focused on any one part of my experience. It was as if my senses were wide open, and I was aware of everything at once: sounds, light, space, the sensations arising in the body, my emotions, and the odd stray through that would pass through.

There was a “field of experience,” and if there was a center to this field, it was the breathing, but it was there as a lightly held focus. It was there as one experience among many, and just happened to occupy the center by reason of its centrality in the body. But often it would seem as if there was no distinct center to the field of experience. There simply was a field of experiences, which would arise and pass away. There’s no “activity” going on when this state arises (although there may be activity leading up to this state appearing).

Sometimes our mindfulness gets to the point where it’s well established, and it’s time to stop doing and simply be. In the earliest Buddhist texts this is called apanidhaya bhavana, or non-directed attention. It’s also known as “choiceless awareness.” In the Zen tradition this meditation is called shikantaza, or “Just Sitting.” In Tibetan meditation there are similar meditations in the Dzogchen (Great Perfection) and Mahamudra (Great Seal) traditions. All have the characteristic of simply allowing experience to arise. There is little or no activity going on. You’re neither meditating nor not-meditating.

This might all sound rather mysterious, but there are ways that help us enter this kind of meditation — activities that we do in order to get to the point of non-activity. And we can also begin and end our meditations (including mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana) with Just Sitting.

Beginning and Ending Meditations

At the beginning of meditation I encourage people to develop an expansive awareness of the world around them, and to allow a sense of equanimity to develop. We notice the sound and space and light around us. We’re simply accepting whatever is arising, and we’re not doing anything with what arises beyond noticing it.

In a sense, noticing isn’t even an activity. The mind is “noticing” all the time, in that impulses are continually flowing along nerves into the brain. It’s paying selective attention that’s the activity — for example focusing our attention on the computer screen in front of us — and it’s this selective attention that causes us to filter out other perceptions that are arising. For example, when we’re reading on a computer screen, as you probably are now, we often filter out what’s happening in the world round about us, so that we fail to hear someone talking to us, and we tend to filter out sensations from the body, including sensations of discomfort that are arising because of the way we’re sitting. But the sensations are still arising, even if we’re focusing on something else. The mind is naturally open and spacious, but we fail to notice this because we narrow down our field of awareness.

In Just Sitting we let go of our narrow focus, and simply become aware of these sensations that are already arising. You don’t need to find those sensations. You don’t need to make an effort to discover them. They’re already coming to you. You just need to stop avoiding them.

Sometimes at the beginning of meditation, we’re able to include an awareness of both our inner experiences (the body, mind) and our outer experiences (contact with the world) at the same time. I encourage people to do this if they can. But sometimes people find the have to let go of our contact with the world in order to focus on the inner world. That’s fine. But having cultivated an open, expansive, and equanimous state of mind, we then move into focusing more narrowly on the breathing, or on cultivating lovingkindness.

At the end of the practice we reverse this narrowing process. We let go of any activity we’ve been making in the meditation, and we gradually allow more and more of our experience to come into conscious awareness. We move from, say, noticing mainly the breathing, to noticing the rest of the body, our emotions, our state of mind, our contact with the world.

And — and this is a very important part of Just Sitting as the conclusion of a period of meditation — we allow ourselves to become aware of the fruits of the practice. Sometimes we’re so busy doing that we don’t notice the effects of what we’re doing. It’s not uncommon to think your meditation isn’t going well, or hasn’t gone well, only to realize that there’s an emotion of joy present, or that the mind is actually very clear and still, or that there are pleasant sensations in the body. Simply opening up to what’s present allows us to appreciate what’s happened as a result of our practice. Sometimes this is full of surprises.

Our meditation practice can become a bit imbalanced, with too much emphasis on doing and not enough on being, with too much emphasis on activity and not enough emphasis on receptivity. If our practice does become unbalanced, we call this willfulness. We end up focusing on what we expect to find, and don’t pay attention to other aspects of our experience. For example, we might be trying so hard to focus on the breathing that we don’t notice that we’re feeling tense, and that in fact our effort is making us tense. We may bot actually be mindful of the breathing at all, but just paying attention to what we expect the breath to be, noticing only a few token sensations. We may even be trying so hard to cultivate lovingkindness that we don’t notice the actual emotions that are present! This ends up being the opposite of mindfulness. We cultivate a narrow focus and inadvertently repress, or at least ignore, other aspects of our experience.

Activity needs to be balanced by receptivity. In fact, any activity in meditation needs to take place within a context of receptivity. This isn’t saying anything revolutionary. It’s just saying that our meditation ideally should involve mindfulness (sati) as well as focus (samādhi).

Active meditation — cultivating mindfulness or metta, for example — while often enjoyable, can also be tiring. The mind needs periods of spontaneity and freedom, and beginning and ending meditation sessions with Just Sitting helps it to be spontaneous, free, and rested.

We can also periodically check during meditation to see what’s going on, broadly, in our experience. We can let go of any narrow focus, allow the full breadth of our experience to enter awareness, and then return to focusing again. In this way a session of active meditation is interspersed with short breaks in which we Just Sit. If we’re doing the mindfulness of breathing in four stages, or the development of lovingkindness in five stages, then the transitions from one stage to another are an opportunity for us to let go of our narrow engagement with the object of meditation (the breath, our emotional relationships), and to open up to everything else that’s going on. We may find there are things we want to change (adjustments to our posture, changes to our attitude). We gently make any necessary changes, and then move on to the next stage of the practice.

Just Sitting as a Practice in its Own Right

We may Just Sit as a separate practice (or non-practice) for anything between a few minutes or (on retreat) for a few hours.

Just Sitting may be a practice that we do in order to balance activity and receptivity. The flow of our practice may go: mindfulness — just sit — metta — just sit — mindfulness — just sit — metta — just sit.

Many people, after some years of practice, find that Just Sitting becomes the main form of meditation that they do.

When we Just Sit, we begin the meditation, as I’ve explained above, with opening up to the breadth of our experience. But that’s where we stay. We don’t move on to focusing more narrowly, as we do in the mindfulness of breathing and development of lovingkindness meditations. We simply stay in touch with our wide open field of awareness in a non-directed way. Or at least that’s what we do in theory…

In practice, there are several stages we may move through:

  • At first, the mind may need some time to settle. There may be considerable inner distraction. The mind may go on long meanders through thought and memory. At this stage we may have to make an effort, although it’s a gentle one as far as possible. We need to let go of any trains of thought, and relax into the breadth of our awareness. But over time the mind clears and our thoughts settle.
  • Boredom may appear. Ideally we just note boredom as another experience that is arising. We can have confidence that this experience of boredom will pass in time, and that our experience will become more interesting. This is an opportunity for faith (in ourselves) and for patience (with the mind, the practice) to emerge.
  • We find ourselves watching, and taking an interest in our experience. The mind may gravitate toward particular experiences that are either pleasant or difficult. We may find that we do some “creative thinking.” This doesn’t have the same feel as the raw distraction that arose earlier. In fact it feels quite positive, and because of that it’s seductive. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this, but we can notice that it’s happening, make a mental note of any “good ideas” that have arisen, and return to the breadth of our awareness.
  • Then there is the stage of clarity. We are just watching, with no distractions, not even positive ones. Thoughts still arise, but we notice them pass by without any engagement with them. We may consciously note that all of our experiences are arising and passing away. They’re all impermanent. We’re no longer caught up in them because we’re no longer identifying with them.
  • Then there’s the stage of non-self. This is a state of complete non-activity, and yet of complete aliveness and spontaneity. Experiences are arising, and we realize that they are just happening. We’re not making these experiences happen. Even the realization that experiences are just happening is just another experience that’s arising. There’s no sense that these experiences are owned by anyone, or that there’s anyone to do any owning. There is just seeing, with no one who is seeing. There is no action, and no one to do any action. There is no effort. And yet this is an emotionally warm state. There is a sense of openness and stillness. There is a sense of meaningfulness and clarity. But there is no longer any “self-ing.”

And then at some stage we find ourselves starting to return to a more normal way of being, and the meditation comes to an end.

The Just Sitting practice is in the end tremendously encouraging and life-affirming. Through simply not-doing, we find that the mind naturally clears itself and reveals a gentle and compassionate energy. It’s like water in which mud has been mixed; all you have to do is leave it undisturbed, and it will settle down. The water will become clear and pure all on its own.

Once a certain amount of momentum has developed in our mindfulness, positive qualities such as joy, compassion, and awareness begin to arise spontaneously. At a certain point “we” no longer need to meditate. In fact there is no longer any “us” there to meditate. Meditation is simply happening. Just sitting is happening, but there’s no sitter.

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With no effort or practice whatsoever, Enlightenment is here

In all sects of Buddhism, meditation is a prevalent practice,  but Buddhist teachers from different sects use different language to teach meditation.

There are meditations that focus on awareness and insight; meditations that focus on our breath, our body, our feelings, our minds and our mental qualities; and meditations for developing loving kindness within our minds and hearts.

It is easy, when learning a form of meditation, to just focus on the form and then judge whether or not we are doing it “right”.

There is freedom from this judging and striving in Dzogchen practice. Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche (1910-1991), one of the great luminaries of Tibetan Buddhism in the twentieth century,  was a highly realized and accomplished master dedicated to the transmission and preservation of Tibet’s spiritual legacy and a principle teacher of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Here is a list of some of the teachings on meditation from Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche:

  • “In meditation we can see through the illusion of past, present and future – the past is only an unreliable memory held in the present. The future is only a projection of our present conceptions. The present itself vanishes as soon as we try to grasp it.
  • We should free ourselves from our memories and preconceptions of meditation. Each moment of meditation is unique and full of potential.
  • Simply meditating in the moment, with our whole being, free from hesitation, boredom or excitement is Enlightenment.
  • Everything is naturally perfect just as it is,  we are naturally perfect as we are, a symbol of Enlightenment.
  • Everything and everyone is constantly changing, nothing is permanent. When we want things or people to remain the same, we suffer. When we want something different from what we have, we suffer.
  • With no effort or practice whatsoever, enlightenment is already here – it is not something or somewhere outside of ourselves. Striving for Enlightenment obstructs our free flow of energy.
  • The everyday practice of Dzogchen is just everyday life itself. Each moment is a moment that can be a moment of mindfulness, gratitude and meditation… there is no need to behave in any special way or attempt to attain anything above and beyond who we already are.
  • When meditating, we should feel it to be as natural as eating and breathing… we should realize that meditation transcends effort, practice, aims, goals and the duality of liberation and captivity. Our practice should be without effort, without strain, without attempts to control or force and without trying to become ‘peaceful’.
  • Therefore we should be natural and spontaneous, accepting and learning from everything.”

There is an expression in Dozgchen, emaho, which means each and every moment provides an opportunity to be kind, generous, honest, mindful, grateful and loving.  Emaho!

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“Never Turn Away: The Buddhist Path Beyond Hope and Fear” by Rigdzin Shikpo

Never Turn Away, by Rigdzin Shikpo

Tejananda, Buddhist practitioner, meditation teacher, and author of The Buddhist Path to Awakening, gives an overview of a new, fresh approach to translating the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism into a western idiom.

Rigdzin Shikpo (Michael Hookham) was one of the earliest Western students of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Trungpa, who died in 1987, was a brilliant yet controversial figure. But whatever his flaws, he was undoubtedly one of the key figures in transmitting and translating Tibetan Buddhism for the western world: not so much translating in the linguistic sense as being prepared to take risks in creating new forms and expressions out of the 1000-year-old Kagyu tradition in which he was reared from early childhood, in “honest collision” with western culture and values.

Trungpa was also trained in the older Nyingma tradition, the heart of which is the Maha-Ati or Great Perfection (Dzogchen) teachings, and it was these in particular that he transmitted to Rigdzin Shikpo during his period in the UK between 1963 and 1970. Trungpa Rinpoche is still very much Rigdzin Shikpo’s root guru, a fact clearly reflected in Rigdzin Shikpo’s deep devotion to his teacher.

See also:

It also is clear in the content of this book, which frequently makes reference to Trungpa’s Dharma teachings. At the same time, it’s obvious that Rigdzin Shikpo has assimilated these teachings deeply, and they come across in his own voice and manner.

The book expounds the four Truths, traditionally the Buddha’s first, and certainly his most fundamental, teaching: suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path or way (which enables the cessation of suffering). The book is more concerned with practice than with doctrinal exposition, with Rigdzin Shikpo discussing each Truth in relation to a significant area of practice.

Title: “Never Turn Away – The Buddhist Path Beyond Hope and Fear.”
Author: Rigdzin Shikpo
Publisher: Wisdom Publications, Boston (2007).
ISBN: 0-86171-488-1
Available from:

The first and the underlying theme of the whole book, is openness, in relation to the truth of suffering (duhkha). According to Rigdzin Shikpo, Trungpa Rinpoche “always emphasized direct experience and mostly had students work with the single instruction of openness.” This “provides the basis for greater awareness in meditation and everyday life … it is the combination of openness and awareness that lays the ground for seeing significance in our experience.”

The fundamental attitude of Dharma practice is always “turning toward” whatever life presents to us…

But significance can’t be learned from words, even words about Dharma. Its the qualities they “point” to that have to “affect our guts … hit us in the deepest part of what we are.” This is the import of the book’s title: “Never Turn Away.” In other words, the fundamental attitude of Dharma practice is always “turning towards” whatever life presents to us. Not going into denial, not blanking out with intoxication –- any kind of intoxication –- but simply being open to life, just as it is.

Of course, what we want to “blank out” is pain and suffering. Bearing with pleasure is not a problem for most of us! But always to be shying away from pain and attempting to prolong pleasure amounts to our manufacturing a “reality” which is itself painful and unsatisfactory. This “seeming reality” in which most of us live “is fundamentally false.”

The first step towards seeing through this delusion is — never turn away. “Openness is a way of learning about the world that enables us to relate to things properly and act skilfully.”

In practice, learning the “skill” of openness is best served by meditation. What kind of meditation? Rigdzin Shikpo notes that “meditation, by itself, is not necessarily helpful” and can even be harmful, because it “can powerfully reinforce our world view.” So, it’s vital that meditation is done on the basis of right view.

The practice of openness is a natural gateway into the area of wisdom…

“View, in this sense, is a way of seeing that leads to a deeper understanding of the nature of experience, rather than holding a particular dogma or set of beliefs.” This view is nothing other than “an attitude of complete openness to whatever arises in our minds and daily lives.”

Much more than “calm” or “peace of mind” (a common motivation for taking up meditation), the practice of openness is a natural gateway into the area of prajna or wisdom, and helps us to “develop a robustness of mind that can work with any circumstances that arise” and “to develop as truly human beings.” In the next several chapters, Rigdzin Shikpo goes into a lot of useful detail on the basics of this approach to meditation practice.

The second Truth, the cause of suffering, is expounded in the context of “mandala principle.” Mandalas are often identified with colorful Tibetan thangka paintings of elaborate circular diagrams. But the mandala principle on which they are based is universal: “every aspect of our experience, both internal and external, can be understood in terms of mandala … everything in the universe expresses itself in terms of mandala and interlocking mandalas within mandalas.”

Every mandala has a center and a periphery, and “at the center is the basic organizing principle, which is something active and powerful.” Emanating from this “are various related subprinciples” forming the body of the mandala. These are often depicted as a sphere, with a boundary. “Whenever mandalas have to do with people and their concerns, the boundary is a very emotional place.”

What has this got to do with the second Truth, the origin of suffering? The answer lies in ego, or self-view, “which narrows our world and creates a closed and sometimes crushing mandala.” This “ego mandala” gives rise to suffering because of our “continually projecting expectations onto our experience,” especially in the relation between the conceptual structures we create, and our emotions. Consequently, exploration of and penetration into the significance of this relation is a vitally important element of meditation practice.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, Trungpa Rinpoche taught that negative emotions like anger or desire were not themselves really a problem: “Emotions arise in our bodies, but they don’t have to be expressed in external activity.” The problem lies not in the basic emotion but in the “negativity of the negativity” which refers “to the ideas we have about our emotions, the reasons we give to justify their presence and continuance.”

Ego, or self-view, narrows our world and creates a closed and sometimes crushing mandala.

So, it’s important to recognize the conceptual link between emotion and response. “Negative” emotions only grow because we dwell on them with thoughts. “We use concepts to narrow our vision and drive our hatred and desire toward some ego-centred goal.” To open and expand our vision through meditation, Rigdzin Shikpo recommends “treating thoughts, feelings and emotions as guests.” That is, you “greet” them by allowing yourself to experience them as clearly as possible, then “let them go and return to the breath.”

Importantly, “you never need to think of them as interruptions. They are all part of the meditation practice, part of the dance of your mind.” This advice seems particularly apposite to those developing a meditation practice, as it’s often assumed that “thoughts are the enemy” and somehow have to be got rid of.

There is a good deal of further meditation advice in this section of the book. What is particularly useful is the emphasis on principles and views informing meditation practice, more than details of technique. This is true of much of the book, which means that it will probably be of more relevance to those who have been meditating for some time than those who are just setting up their practice.

The third section, The Collapse of Confusion, corresponds to the Truth of the cessation of suffering. Confusion, the deluded view of the “ego mandala,” collapses when we see “the falseness of our old vision of the world” through meditative investigation. For example, all our basic assumptions about time, space and “objects” –- including “self” or “me here” and “other” or “things out there” -– can be investigated in direct experience and discovered to be just that -– assumptions that don’t stand up to investigation.

Rigdzin Shikpo stresses that when our assumptions do actually collapse, this can be “emotionally shocking” and even feel like “death.” But what “dies” is only the confused ego-mandala, or at least some aspect of clinging to the notion of “self,” and its collapse means liberation from suffering. However, this is unlikely to happen until our basic wrong assumptions are investigated, and this section offers some simple yet potentially far-reaching meditative investigations.

Most of us might well prefer a familiar pain to an unfamiliar kind of bliss…

As Rigdzin Shikpo writes, these can lead to “a real sense of emptiness, a state beyond concepts” which may sound “high and wonderful and difficult to accomplish,” but in fact, given dedicated application, confidence, is “difficult but not that difficult.” Encouraging words.

The final section examines the fourth Truth, the Path, as “The Pursuit of Truth.” Of course, the previous sections have been concerned with elements of the path too; this one is largely about deepening these insights. “Our biggest job … is to work with that fundamental emotional grasping itself: that grasping at things as real, and grasping at some solid ground to stand on.” This is why, for example “most of us might well prefer a familiar pain to an unfamiliar kind of bliss.”

From the point of view of the delusional ego, the unsatisfactory world that nevertheless confirms its “reality” is preferable to freedom. Hence, although freedom is directly available, we really, really don’t want to go there. One take on the path, then, is that it’s whatever is necessary to get us to the point of embracing this always-available freedom.

There’s a very useful discussion here around “form” and “formless” practice. In terms of the “inner tantras,” there is a “generation” or “form” stage (kye-rim) and “completion” or “formless” stage (dzog-rim) to any system of practice. Practice with form helps us “establish the sense of the presence of awakening and a strong sense of going for refuge, taking the Bodhisattva vow, or making offerings.” Formless practice allows “a vivid sense of formlessness which is not vagueness, but a kind of clarity beyond appearances.”

Eventually, as he points out, form practice can reach a point where “it seems to be getting in the way” of the actual experiences that it initially enabled us to contact. When this point is reached, we can “link directly into those experiences in a completely formless way,” and here they are “even more powerful, not less so” than they had been in the form stage of practice. However, he cautions “…we can’t approach this powerful level of genuine formlessness without first working extensively with form.”

I found it interesting to note the parallel with Sangharakshita’s system of meditation here, in which “practice” (e.g. mindfulness of breathing, metta bhavana, etc.) is always followed by “non-practice” (just sitting) – clearly the same underlying principle is reflected. It’s noticeable that many people working within this system of practice tend to find increasing “formlessness” tending to emerge spontaneously, over the years and decades of practice.

Every section of the book goes into far more areas of practice than could be mentioned here, all very interesting and useful. Though clearly written to be suitable for those relatively new to meditation and Buddhism, the subtleties of what’s being discussed would probably, as mentioned above, be more helpful to more experienced practitioners. So, while the book can be warmly recommended to anyone who is interested in this approach to practice, if you are new to Rigdzin Shikpo’s writings, it would be better to start with his previous book “Openness, Clarity, Sensitivity.”

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“One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism,” by Joseph Goldstein

one dharma joseph goldstein

Available from and

Goldstein has been meditating in the Theravadin tradition since the 1960’s, and is one of the founders of the Insight Meditation Society. So it’s interesting that for the last few years he’s also been practicing in a Tibetan meditation tradition called Dzog-chen.

Although the practices of Insight Meditation and Dzog-chen are quite similar, their theoretical and metaphysical underpinnings are very different indeed, and One Dharma has emerged from the creative tension that comes about from practicing two very different forms of Buddhism.

Goldstein is not alone in following teachings from more than one Buddhist school. In the cultural melting-pot that is the West, more and more people are seeking spiritual advice from more than one teacher. This inevitably brings up important questions such as, what is essential in each tradition? Strip away the cultural accretions, and what are you left with? If traditions differ on important points, is only one of them right? Or could it be that all Buddhist teachings are simply “Skillful Means” — fingers pointing at the truth, where the finger itself is just showing the way? This is the territory that Goldstein explores.

He expounds an approach to the Buddhist path that is nonsectarian, and which is based on the practice of Mindfulness and the cultivation of Wisdom and Compassion. He skillfully outlines the universally applicable practice of Buddhist ethics, gives an explanation of mindfulness and lovingkindness (practices taught on Wildmind), explains various approaches to cultivating Compassion, and elucidates the cultivation of Wisdom through the practice of non-clinging.

This is an ambitious book, and with any ambitious project there is scope for improvement. The meditation instruction is rather thin, for example. But on the whole this is a fascinating book, of interest to anyone who is exploring the Buddhist path and who is trying to make sense of the bewildering array of Buddhist teachings on offer in the West. Goldstein offers a clear outline of the most fundamental Buddhist principles. Having understood those we are in a far better position to reconcile apparently contradictory teachings and approaches.

This book is, as Daniel Goleman says on the dust-jacket, “a brilliant map of the spiritual path.”

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Meditation Is Not Enough (Beliefnet)

Ask the Lama: Lama Surya Das

Dear Lama Surya Das,

I recently listened to one of your “Natural Perfection” tapes and liked what you said about people NOT having to meditate. I think some of us are suffering under a perceived (or projected) meditation culture that virtually stigmatizes those who do not sit well or practice consistently. Everybody doesn’t have to sit a whole weekend, or morning, or hour. Right?

Sitting Some But Not Too Often

Dearest Sitting Some,

This is a very interesting and fairly common question. So let me answer by getting right to the point. Yes, that’s right. The truth is that there’s a lot more to authentically liberating and transformative spirituality–and even to the path of Buddhism– than just meditating. “Sitting some” is fine. The real question is: What else are you doing with your life? People occasionally ask me in public forums, “Why do I have to meditate?” And I always reply, “Who said you have to?” Who says we have to get enlightened? What is our motivation? What are we looking for or even lacking, for that matter?

Sometimes I think there’s too much tight-lipped silence, grim sitting and bowing going down in the Buddhist ghetto, and that we could all use a little more Dharma stand-up! If the Buddha lived today, I suspect he’d add a few extra innings to his famous Eight-fold Path to Enlightenment, such as Good Exercise, Good Parenting and Good Humor. For a man cannot live by serious religiosity alone. Take my word for it, I’ve tried.

To think that Buddhism is all about meditation is to misunderstand it. Westerners attracted to Buddhism and Eastern thought and practice often make the mistake of seeing meditation in the most narrow sense of going into a quiet room and closing your eyes. In fact, there’s a lot more to these things, both externally, internally, and ultimately, as Tibetan commentators describe the process of spiritual development. Mindfulness is not the same as meditation; it can be practiced formally while sitting and while walking, as is done in traditional Buddhist monasteries and retreat centers, or informally in whatever activity in which we may be engaged. Being present, wakeful and showing up fully in our life is more important than any particular posture or set of words.

There’s a renowned Dzogchen teaching called “Buddhahood Without Meditation.” There is even a book by that name, translated from Dudjom Lingpa’s original Tibetan teaching. This startling title points to the fact that we are all Buddhas by nature, we only have to recognize and awaken to that fact. A related teaching is called “Buddhahood in the Palm of One’s Hand.” Both of these simply point to the fact that what we seek, we are; that nirvana is not far away, in future time or in another place, but inseparable from samsara (the cycle of birth and death governed by karma) and found hidden in the here and now. There are numerous stories and teaching tales in the classical enlightenment literature about karmically ripe individuals experiencing awakenings –while engaged in all kinds of ordinary activities.

Meditation is more about being than doing, introducing and unveiling a new way of seeing, far beyond sitting or just keeping still. Yet there inevitably is some appropriate effort, intention, and attention involved. There is no way around this. Meditation is how many Buddhists pray. Yet meditation practice is more of a listening than the usual supplicant’s so-called conversation with God.

Buddha called meditative awareness—or mindfulness– the main ”factor of enlightenment.” However, Buddha outlined seven factors of enlightenment, including also developing the qualities of joy, equanimity, perseverance, concentration, serenity, and analytical investigation; if you are deeply wise, these seven are well balanced. The Buddhist path to enlightenment actually includes not one but three liberating trainings: ethical self discipline, meditation, and wisdom. Without the other two, meditation alone is not enough.

If we ask how to undertake and accomplish the path of enlightenment, and how to implement and practice these three trainings, they are broken out into the renowned Eight-fold Path taught by Buddha himself as the way to accomplish what he accomplished and eventually become just like him. Again, notice that in these traditional eight steps to enlightenment, there are practices such as Wise Livelihood, which are not solitary or contemplative but engage us fully in daily life, although mindfulness and loving kindness at our tasks is recommended and helps in many ways. Love at work, compassion in action, spiritual and social activism, karma yoga as well as devoting ourselves to the welfare of the world are an important part of spiritual practice in all the great traditions. Mother Teresa said that “We can’t all do great things, but doing small things with great love makes them great.”

The heart of every spiritual path without exception is some kind of basic morality and self-discipline. If we wish to live wisely and contribute to a better world, we must try to become better people–authentic people, honest, straightforward, decent and even unselfishly good. Practices such as truth-telling, non-harming, peacemaking, balancing, showing generosity and engaging in selfless service are too often overlooked in the grace race to achieve higher states of blessedness; yet all these are yogas, if you will, that help you connect with the divinity– however you conceive of it–and the inherent beauty and sacredness of life. Yoga means union, that which yokes us to the highest and deepest form of spirit.

In olden days I was like a teenage Buddha statue and used to meditate a lot, often all day, in my teacher’s Tibetan monastery in the East. Now, wherever I am, I meditate, sinking roots deep into the present moment and extracting (thriving on) its essence. But there are innumerable ways to worship and awaken. “There are countless ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” sang the Sufi poet-saint Rumi. Especially in our diverse, multicultural, pluralistic era, I feel we must be respectful and tolerant of the many options people have discovered for pursuing spiritual development, even within each faith, not to mention among the different faiths. Moreover, we must be patient with ourselves and our karmic condition, and avoid indulging in guilt, shame and self-bashing in the name of deep spiritual aspiration.

Of course, to a Buddhist monk or nun or dedicated Buddhist practitioner, meditation is an important part of every day, as it is for me and has been for over thirty years. But I am a slow learner! How long does it take to wake up? Perhaps you can do it your own way. The rich and deep Dharma teachings are all there, freely available, for whoever wants to avail themselves of them. Help yourself. As the Buddha said, “Come and see.”

One of my favorite Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, wrote: “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘Thank You,’ that is sufficient.”

Here is an instant mini-meditation for you. l bet you can do this every day, without too much stress, anywhere, anytime, with or without closing your eyes.

Breathe, relax, and smile.
Breathe, relax, and smile.
Breathe relax, and smile.
Outdoors or inside,
Enjoy the joy of natural meditation.

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