*Note: This piece first appeared on elephantjournal.com here.
During meditation instruction I try to convey some importance about the part of the technique that involves letting go of our thoughts and returning to the breath. But, I don’t think that I really do it justice.
When Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche visited my dathun (month long retreat) at Shambhala Mountain Center in 2008, he said that the most important thing about shamatha sitting practice is “breaking our habits.”
We do this by working with the shamatha technique. When we notice that we’re thinking, let that go, and come back to the breath, we are creating a new habit—learning to live the life we’re actually living, rather than being led around constantly by our discursive minds.
Our tendency at grasping for the next thing to fill a hole that we perceive in our being is demonstrated in our thoughts during meditation practice.
By cutting the pattern of discursive thought we learn to relax and just be. We can actually sit and be content.
But, we’re not doing all of this to just be good little meditators, or to have short reprieves during our day from our constant state of anxiety and dissatisfaction.
We’re doing this during our sitting time so that it begins to affect our entire life. The opportunity to practice the technique manifests in our daily life during those times that we’re feeling depressed, bogged down, jealous etc.
It’s when we buy a new laptop that was barely in our budget, and are perfectly happy with it…until we see the commercial with the Mac Book Invisible that injects you with lattes and squirts Visine in your eyes every two minutes so you don’t have to blink. There are two choices to make in that moment:
1. We can feel that jealousy, feel depressed, and then try to push the feeling away (for it to re-surface later) and then let that ripple out to affect our mood for an entire day.
2. Alternatively, we can let that feeling go, understanding its insignificance and return to sense our natural state of well-being. The technique is effective when applied diligently in meditation practice, first, and it begins to be a way to relate with the world that permeates our whole existence.
Maybe I’m being overly dramatic, but to me this is a life changing sequence of events. It’s worth the price of admission a hundredfold.
There is a sense of contentment that comes from relaxing our need to fixate and cling. When we sit, especially in the beginning, there is a constant sense of, “Oh no, here we go, then (let go) aaahhhh; Oh no, here we go, then (let go) aaahhh.” The more we do this the more “aaahhh” time we begin to have.
Also, the more we see our self-flagellating patterns, the easier it is to learn that we can just cease indulging them. And the more we can just sit and be; and not need anything else in a given moment.
But, this is also much more than just ignoring thoughts. It’s not that we’re just deciding to push away our thoughts, so we won’t be burdened by them, and so that we can enjoy a mindless bliss.
It’s actually that we truly see the spacious freedom, sanity, and healthiness that is our natural state. We see thoughts as these rather random nuisances that needlessly get in the way of our natural state of being. This clarity and spaciousness actually allows us to the think more clearly and effectively—when we want to.
The disposition that creates all of our suffering is one that is constantly grasping, in a delusional way, for reasons that are self-defeating. The sane disposition is achievable, by everyone of us, by applying a simple technique involving looking at our thoughts and noticing our breathing.