Inspirational Guideposts To Work With Thoughts and Emotions

These guideposts have be extracted or paraphrased from the book: Why meditate? by Matthieu Ricard. I have chosen passages where there are concrete examples so that we can understand it and apply it to our lives. I hope you find it useful on the path.

We wish we could master our mind to the point where we could be free of disturbing emotions like anxiety and anger. However, because we do not know how to achieve this kind of control, we assume that this way of living is normal, natural and just human nature. Everything that is found in nature is natural but that does not necessarily make it desirable. Illness, for example, comes to everybody, but does this prevent us from consulting a doctor?

Whatever we are occupied with- an important task, routine work, walking in the woods or drinking a cup of tea – we always hope we will get some benefit out of it, either for ourselves or others. If we thought that nothing would come of our activities but suffering, we would not do anything at all and we would fall into despair.

We don’t find anything strange about spending years learning to walk, read, write or acquire professional skills. We spend hours doing physical exercise or riding a stationary bike to get our bodies into shape. This requires at least a minimum of interest and enthusiasm. This interest comes from believing these efforts are going to benefit us in the long run. Working with the mind is the same and will require effort, not just wishing. That makes no more sense than expecting to learn to play a Mozart sonata by just occasionally doodling on the piano.

Every being has the potential for enlightenment just as every sesame seed contains oil.

We wander about in confusion like a beggar who is simultaneously both rich and poor because he does not know that he has a treasure buried under the floor of his hut. The goal is to come into possession of this overlooked wealth of ours, which can imbue our lives with the most profound meaning.

The world is not made of independent entities that have intrinsic properties like beauty, ugliness, friendship or enmity. Things and beings are essentially independent and in constant transformation. Compassion and loving-kindness means to wish that others be happy and to put an end to the suffering and causes of suffering of others. This will make others and ourselves happy. Meditation helps us transform ourselves so that we can transform the world by transforming our experience of the world and serving others in a wiser and more effective way.

Mindfulness, compassion and loving-kindness can be cultivated. The brain is plastic and can change its structure and function. We can change ourselves by meditation and mind training. We  do not need to say that we are born the way we are and nothing we can do can change that.

We can train our mind. All training requires perseverance and enthusiasm. We will not learn to ski by practicing one or two minutes a month.

Galileo discovered the rings of Saturn after devising a bright and powerful telescope and setting it up on a stable support. This would not have been possible with an inadequate instrument or an unstable base. Similarly, if we want to observe the subtlest mechanisms of our mental functioning and have an effect on them, we must refine our powers of looking inwards. To do that, our attention has to be highly sharpened so that it becomes stable and clear.

Meditators are accused of being too focused on themselves. We cannot regard the process of rooting out obsession with self and altruism selfish. This would be like blaming an aspiring doctor spending years studying medicine before beginning to practice.

Instead of letting go of the helm and just allowing the boat to drift wherever the wind blows, freedom means setting a course towards a chosen destination – the destination that we know to be the most desirable for ourselves and others.

What arises spontaneously does not necessarily produce good results, any more than throwing seeds into the wind produces good harvests. So we have to behave like good farmers who prepare their fields before sowing their seeds. For us this means that the most important task is to attain freedom through mastering our mind.

Meditation is not a matter of theory but of practice, just as it does not satisfy your hunger to read a restaurant menu if you are not going to eat from it.

Visible suffering is evident everywhere in the form of wars, disasters, poverty and sickness. Hidden suffering is related to impermanence and change. That is, even though we may be enjoying life, dramatic changes can occur suddenly: going to a nice picnic and getting bitten by a snake, or finding out that one has a serious illness.An even deeper suffering comes from our basic ignorance and being in the grip of delusion and selfishness.

Take a vow to transform yourself not only for your own sake but also, and especially, for the sake of one day being able to dispel the suffering of others and contributing to their enduring happiness.

A living master, a teacher from an established contemplative tradition or a book based on trustworthy resources can all be teachers.

You  don’t try to learn the basics of navigation in the thick of a storm; you learn them in good weather on a calm sea. If a flame is continually exposed to the wind, its light will be weak and in constant danger of being blown out. On the other hand, if the flame is protected from the wind by a glass cover, it will be stable and bright. Similarly, in the beginning it is best to meditate in a quiet place that is free of distractions.

Meditation is not an entertainment. An expedition into the mountains is not always purely fun: along with wonderful moments in breathtaking landscapes, we may also face hardships such as rain, hail, exhaustion, altitude sickness or losing our way. The essential point is to have enough interest in spiritual practice to keep going despite its ups and downs.

It is essential to maintain the continuity of meditation day after day, because in this way your practice gradually gains substance and stability. It is like the way a small trickle o water little by little turns into a stream and then into a river.

For a plant to grow well, you have to water it a little every day. If you just pour a bucket of water on it once a month, it will most likely die between waterings. The same applies to meditation. Short, repeated and regular sessions are better although you can meditate longer if you can and the opportunity arises.

When you tune a stringed instrument, the amount of tension you put on the strings to make them sound the best should be neither too tight nor too loose. It is the same with meditation. For it to progress harmoniously, you must find the right balance between effort and relaxation.

Do not place too much importance on the inner experiences like bliss, inner clarity or absence of thoughts. They can be compared to the different landscapes you see going by when you are sitting on a train. You would never consider getting off the train whenever you notice an interesting landscape, because the important thing is to reach your destination. In the case of meditation, the goal is to transform yourself. The progress you make is hardly noticeable from day to day, like the hands of a clock, which you barely see moving. You must be diligent but not impatient. The duration of practice should be the duration of your life.

In order to strengthen your determination to meditate, think about these four points:

  • The preciousness of human life
  • The fragility of human life and the transitory nature of all things
  • Choosing beneficial actions and avoiding harmful actions
  • The unsatisfactory quality inherent in ordinary life.

The good qualities we acquire as we travel along the spiritual path represent the gradual emergence of the potential we all possess. This process has been compared to the cleaning of a gold nugget: once the dirt has been removed, it shines with dazzling brilliance.

Use your human intelligence to eliminate suffering and discover true happiness. Then every moment that passes will be worth living and you will have no regrets at the time of death, like a farmer who has cultivated his fields to the best of his ability.

Everything is transitory, everything changes. Like the seasons, days, months, each moment. Death is inevitable but the time is uncertain. Therefore in the beginning, you should be pursued by the fear of death like a deer escaping from a trap. In the middle, you should have nothing to regret, like a farmer who has tilled his field with care. In the end, you should be happy, like someone who has accomplished a great task.

The sailor on the sea, the mountain guide, and the conscientious craftsman all know that nothing good comes from acting on the whim of the moment. This is even more true if the goal we are pursuing is to liberate ourselves from suffering. We have to do what brings happiness to all and not do what brings suffering. It is as simple as realising that if we keep our hand in the fire, there is no hope of escaping being burned.

Spending all your life trying to achieve ordinary worldly goals( like pleasure, gain, praise and renown)… would be like trying to net fish in a dry riverbed. Clearly understanding this, make a firm decision not to allow your life to pursue such a useless course.

Mindfulness consists of three things:

  • awareness of everything that arises within and around us from moment to moment, everything we see, hear, feel and think
  • understanding the nature of our perceptions, free from the distortions that make us attracted or repelled by them
  • discernment between states of mind that are beneficial and those that are harmful or pointless.

This means observation without grasping.

The mind is like a monkey tethered by many ropes and it wants to get loose and therefore keeps jumping. Calming this monkey does not mean tying him up and forcing him to be still. The aim is to take advantage of a moment of calm and clear it from the ropes of thoughts, conflicting emotions and confusion.

Suppose you are trying to retrieve a key that has fallen into a pond. Poking the bottom with a stick will make the water muddy and you cannot see a thing. The first thing you have to do is let the water settle until it becomes clear. Then it will be easy to see the key and pick it up. We must work with our mind in the same way. We have to first make it clear, calm and attentive.

The agitated and confused mind is like a cloud of dust raised by the wind. Mindfulness of the breath is like the rain shower that dispels the dust. Then there is calm and inner clarity – the pure sky.

When you get distracted from the mindfulness of the breath, just come back to the breath, like a butterfly coming back to a flower after having fluttered here and there for no apparent reason.

When thoughts appear let them pass through the field of awareness the way a bird passes through the sky without leaving a trace.

You can revive your concentration on the breath when it gets distracted by:

1. Counting your breaths mentally.
2. Mentally repeating the same number or series of numbers when you breathe.
3. Noticing the movement of the abdomen.
4. Mentally repeating a phrase with the breath.
5. Saying a mantra with the breath.
6. Being aware of the transient pause between breaths.

The four foundations of mindfulness are:

1. Being aware of the body: the movements, the outside parts, the inner parts
2. Being aware of feelings: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.
3. Being aware of thoughts: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.
4. Being aware of whatever enters your awareness: through senses, feelings and thoughts.

Note how everything is transient, how everything comes and goes; how your awareness is calm beneath all these changes.

A heap is a collection of grains, a sheaf a collection of straw and a crowd a collection of people. In the same way the body is a collection of skin, flesh, marrow, blood and organs. All of these are formed as certain causes and conditions come together. But they do not exist in one sense. All phenomena in the world are like that. Be aware of that. As you are aware, be aware of the feelings and thoughts that arise and let them go.

The mind and awareness is like the sky: no edge, no centre, no aim.

Establish priorities among your projects. Remember your days are numbered. Ordinary activities are like waves on the ocean. There is no end to them. Remember that you can transform yourself and that your life is precious. Then you will not be lazy.

When we look at the sea in the full light of the day we can see algae and stones at the bottom through the clear water. Meditation should have this kind of clarity, which allows us to be mindfully aware of the situation of our mind. In the night, the sea is a dark and opaque mass which our vision cannot penetrate. In the same way, a dim and heavy mind, inspite of an appearance of stability, is a hindrance to meditating.

A big occasional effort does not have the same benefit as less spectacular effort that is more constant. If you begin climbing a high mountain at a run, your lungs will force you to stop. If you draw a bow too far, it will break, If you cook on a very high flame, food will get burnt. It takes patience to grow a crop. In the same way, steadiness, perseverance and constant effort is required for the practice of meditation.

A roaring waterfall calms down gradually as its waters flow into the plains and finally run into the vast ocean. In a similar way, meditation will calm the turbulent thoughts of the mind.

It takes time and perseverance to master an art, a sport, a language or any other discipline. Why should it not be the same with training the mind?

Like the sun that shines equally on good people and bad people, on beautiful landscapes and dung heaps, do your best to extend altruistic love, compassion and joy to all beings without distinction. This is equanimity.

Just as a bird needs two wings to fly, you must develop wisdom and compassion simultaneously. Wisdom is a correct understanding of reality and compassion is the desire for all beings to be liberated from the causes of suffering.

Just as a rainbow is formed at the precise moment the sun shines on a collection of raindrops, and disappears as soon as the factors that produce it are no longer present, phenomena exist in essentially interdependent mode and have no permanent, independent existence.

Like a flickering star, a mirage or a flame, like a magical illusion, a dew drop, or a bubble on a stream, like a dream, a flash of lightning, or a cloud, see all compounded things as being like these.

Like reflections on the surface of a clear lake, the multitude of phenomena manifests, completely devoid of inherent existence.

Subject and object are like sandalwood and its fragrance. Samsara and nirvana are like ice and water. Appearances and emptiness are like clouds and the sky. Thoughts and nature of the mind are like the waves and the ocean.

Lakes and rivers freeze in the winter and then we can walk on them. When the spring comes, the water thaws. What becomes of the ice? Water is soft and fluid, ice is hard and sharp. Are they identical? They are not but they are also identical. Ice is only frozen water and water is only melted ice. Don’t be attached to the reality of phenomena. Melt the ice of your concepts so that the fluid water of free perception can flow.

In the same way that a glass of water cannot be hot and cold at the same time, we cannot wish to simultaneously benefit and harm the same person.  The more light there is in a room, the less darkness there is. The more kindness we develop, the less malice and ill will there will be.

When sunlight falls on a crystal, lights of all the colours of the rainbow appear; yet they have no substance that you can grasp. Likewise all thoughts in their infinite variety – devotion, compassion, harmlessness, desire – are utterly without substance.

A movie that lasts a 100 years is no more real than a movie that lasts an hour. Our ego is like the movie that lasts a 100 years.


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