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Contemplative Prayer: Developing Awareness

Chogyam Trungpa painting by Joni Mitchell[Beth Adam’s talk on  February 10, 2015]

 In these weeks surrounding and during Lent, I’d like to share with you teachings of some masters from different traditions. As I said at our previous meeting, it’s important to remind ourselves of the basics, and to realize that we always need discipline: in other words, not to be sloppy about what we’re doing, but to make our best effort. So we begin with that intention.

Today I offer some words from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan Buddhist master who founded Karma Choling in Vermont, and the Naropa Institute and Shambala Mountain Center in Colorado, and Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton. He had many students you’ve probably heard of: among them Pema Chodrun, Alan Ginsburg, and Ken Wilbur. [And, on at least one notable occasion, Joni Mitchell whose portrait of him appears here]. Of course, he also had thousands of students you’ve never heard of but who were profoundly influenced by his teaching. My meditation teacher was one of them.

The following are excerpts from the first chapter of his book The Myth of Freedom. I think if you listen carefully, these words will be quite helpful.

“If one searches for a promised land, a Treasure Island, then the search only leads to more pain. We cannot reach such islands, we cannot attain enlightenment in such a manner. All sects and schools of Buddhism agree that we must begin by facing the reality of our living situation. We cannot begin by dreaming. That would only be a temporary escape: real escape is impossible.

In Buddhism we express our willingness to be realistic through the practice of meditation. Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss or tranquility, nor is it attempting to become a better person. It is simply the creation of a space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deceptions, our hidden fears and hopes. We provide space through the simple discipline of doing nothing. Actually doing nothing is very difficult. At first we must begin by approximating doing nothing, and gradually our practice will develop. So meditation is a way of churning out the neuroses of mind and using them as part of our practice. Lake manure, we do not throw our neuroses away, but we spread them on our garden; they become part of our practice.

In meditation practice, we neither hold the mind very tightly nor let it go completely. If we try to control the mind, then its energy will rebound back on us. If we let the mind go completely, then it will become very wild and chaotic. So we let the mind go, but at the same time there is some discipline involved. The techniques are very simple. Awareness of bodily movement, breath, and one’s physical situation are techniques common to all traditions. The basic practice is to be present, right here. The goal is also the technique.”

Three techniques: awareness of bodily movement, awareness of the breath, and awareness of one’s physical situation. So today, let’s think about the third of those techniques. We’ll settle into our bodies and our meditation posture, trying not to slouch, keeping ourselves relaxed but alert. We will focus on our breath, returning to it gently when we realize our attention has faltered. But today let’s also allow ourselves to take in some sensory information that comes to us for our surrounding environment.

One thing that meditation practice shows us that we have a far greater capacity for awareness than we ever realized. When we stop thinking so actively, stop being preoccupied with our own thoughts, we notice much more. So today, after ten or fifteen minutes of focusing on the breath, when your mind has become quieter, you might try taking in a little more of the sounds of the city, the smells of the cathedral, the feeling of the cool air coming into your nostrils and the warmer air that goes out again. You might want to open your eyes for a while and look softly at a point about three feet in front of you, or watch the flame of the candle.

When our minds are relatively still, we can see and hear and feel with much greater acuity and directness. There’s no need to label or name things, to be annoyed by them or to cling to them: we just experience them simply in the present moment, and let them go. Let’s try it and see. Over time, as we develop this capacity, it will carry over into our daily life, where we gradually become less distracted and preoccupied by our churning thoughts, and more able to be fully here, in each moment, right now. 

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