Are you earnestly seeking tranquility in this busy day and age? More and more people are turning to meditation to find stillness. It is easy to learn and highly relevant to living with more calmness and clarity in our overstimulated world. Stillness is the first step in meditation and it is extremely important, but it isn’t the whole picture.
Stillness meditation has many names. It is also called:
- peacefully remaining
- calm abiding
- tranquility meditation
- mindfulness meditation
The method of mindfulness
Mingyur Rinpoche describes this non-analytical approach to meditation like this:
“…simply allowing the mind to rest calmly as it is. It’s a basic kind of practice through which we rest the mind naturally in a state of relaxed awareness in order to allow the nature of mind to reveal itself.”
Here he is telling us that calming the mind is a basic or beginning practice of meditation, but the ultimate goal of meditation is to recognize and rest in the true nature of mind, which he often refers to as “natural mind.”
Sogyal Rinpoche shares this story from the days of the Buddha to describe the practice of mindfulness:
“Once an old woman came to Buddha and asked him how to meditate. He told her to remain aware of every movement of her hands as she drew the water from the well, knowing that if she did, she would soon find herself in that state of alert and spacious calm that is meditation.”
In mindfulness meditation, we begin by using an object like a flower, a crystal, a candle flame, a sacred image, or the breath. We can also integrate meditation in action as described in the story above. The method involves simply resting our attention lightly on the breath. The discipline is to bring our mind back to the object of our meditation whenever we notice that it has wandered. Naturally, this is easier said than done. However, if you continue to practice regularly, starting with a few minutes a day and gradually building up, slowly over time the busy mind will settle and you will experience more stillness, calm, and peace both in your meditation and in your daily life.
Sogyal Rinpoche shares this famous saying from the great masters of the past to clarify the process of mind naturally settling down:
“Water if you don’t stir it, will become clear; the mind left unaltered will find its own natural peace.”
So in calm abiding meditation, we use an object as the focus of our attention and simply allow all the thoughts and emotions to naturally dissolve. It is important not to concentrate too strongly on the object we have chosen. In this regard, Sogyal Rinpoche advises on to place 25% of our attention on the object, to devote 25% to watchful awareness, that is being aware of whether we are still mindful of the object or have become distracted, and to leave the remaining 50% of our attention resting spaciously. Meditation is not a matter of tensing up and concentrating fiercely, but rather resting our attention lightly in a relaxed way. As we progress, there is also an “objectless” form of mindfulness meditation, where we rest our mind openly without the support of an object.
The aim of mindfulness meditation
The aim of mindfulness meditation is to achieve one-pointed concentration. As you move toward this goal, you gradually become the master of your own mind instead of being subject to all its turbulent emotions and ever-changing whims. Achieving one-pointed concentration requires diligent though relaxed effort and is a great accomplishment in and of itself. However, it is not the ultimate goal of meditation. In fact the “nowness” of the present moment can become a very subtle object and obscure us from seeing the true nature of mind.
Why mindfulness is not the ultimate goal of meditation
Using the analogy of the muddy glass of water again, as long as you don’t stir it the mud remains settled at the bottom of the glass and the water remains clear. However, once disturbed, the water becomes muddy again. It’s the same with your mind. Strong thoughts will arise that will carry you away from the peace of your meditation, Or the activity of life will bring disturbance to your mind.
However, thoughts and emotions are not necessarily the enemy. They are the natural though transitory expression of natural mind. Our problem is following after them and getting lost in a chain of thoughts and emotions, which leads to so much unhappiness, suffering, and discontent. Mindfullness helps us to settle all the thoughts and emotions, but in order to fully cut through the grasping and subsequent attachment and aversion that occurs along with all this thinking, we need to understand the true nature of mind.
The ultimate goal of meditation then is not stillness, which is an indispensable stepping stone, but to recognize and rest in the true nature of mind.
The true nature of mind
What is this true nature of mind, you might ask?
Mingyur Rinpoche says:
“…this fundamental nature of the mind is so vast that it completely transcends intellectual understanding. It can’t be described in words or reduced to tidy concepts.”
“Sometimes the Buddha compared natural mind to space, not necessarily as space is understood by modern science, but rather in the poetic sense of the profound experience of opennes one feels when looking up at a cloudless sky or entering a very large room. Like space, natural mind isn’t dependent on prior causes or conditions. It simply is: immeasurable and beyond characterization, the essential background through which we move and relative to which we recognize distinctions between the objects we perceive.”
Using an analogy of the sky and clouds, Sogyal Rinpoche explains:
“Our true nature could be compared to the sky, and the confusion of the ordinary mind to clouds. Some days the sky is completely obscured by clouds. When we are down on the ground, looking up, it is very difficult to believe there is anything else there but clouds. Yet we only have to fly in a plane to discover a limitless expanse of clear blue sky. From up there the clouds we assumed were everything seem so small and so far away down below.”
Resting in the nature of mind is generally considered an advanced practice, but masters often introduce us to the idea early on so we know where we are headed. This can also infuse our practice with inspiration and spaciousness even in the early stages. So usually, you are first introduced to the nature of mind by an authentic meditation master and then engage in preliminary practices like mindfulness meditation and others to prepare you for the practice of resting in the nature of mind.
Mindfulness is the first step in meditation and it is essential to practice mindfulness in order to ultimately recognize and rest in the nature of mind, but stillness itself is not the ultimate goal of meditation. I strongly encourage you to practice mindfulness meditation. It does indeed have many practical benefits in addition to spiritual ones. The practice brings calmness of mind, diffuses negative emotions, softens your heart, and brings more joy and happiness into your life. In addition, science has revealed the many health benefits that occur as the result of regular meditation from lowering blood pressure to reducing chronic pain. Just don’t mistake stillness as the ultimate goal of meditation.
Although it is easy to learn meditation, there is more to know about it than what is covered in this article. In fact, there are many tips and tricks to learn to make the process easier and to help support you in developing a regular practice. To learn more about mindfulness meditation, the nature of mind, the interconnection between science and meditation, and many other related topics, I recommend the following two books.
- The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by by Sogyal Rinpoche
- The Joy of Living, Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
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