07 Sep 2012

Settling the mind in its natural state is the shamatha practice corresponding the applications of mindfulness on feelings and the mind. This practice itself lies on the cusp between shamatha and vipasyana, but it’s presented within the mahamudra and dzogchen traditions as a shamatha practice for dissolving the coarse mind into the substrate. Awareness of thoughts and emotions frees us from being trapped by our minds and facilitates wiser choices in our behavior. A Tibetan saying goes like this, “When you’re with others, watch your mouth. When you’re alone, watch your mind.”
Meditation: settling the mind. Eyes at least partially open, with gaze resting vacantly. Turn the full force of your interest and mindfulness to the mental domain and the thoughts, images, and emotions arising therein. If you’re new to this practice or when you’re feeling spaced out or disoriented, give yourself a distinct mental target such as the sentence, “This is the mind,” focus single-pointedly on that thought, allow the thought to fade, keep your attention right there, and see if you can observe the next thought or image arising in that space. Simply observe mental events as mental events, without distraction and without grasping. Now, also observe the nature of feelings triggered by those mental events. As before, sustain flow of mindfulness with the support introspection and remedies as needed.

Meditation starts at: 5:00

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So this morning we move into a different mode of shamatha, called settling the mind in its natural state. This will now be our basis, as we move over in the afternoons into the close applications of mindfulness of feelings arising in the mind, and also to next week, when we are going to the close applications of mindfulness to the mind itself, and even phenomena itself. So settling the mind will be a kind of basis, just like mindfulness of breathing is a shamatha basis for the close applications of mindfulness, especially to the body, or to feelings arising in the body.

Settling the mind will now be a shamatha base, which many of you are already familiar with, so you know that it’s right there on the cusp, on the border between shamatha and viphasyana. So a lot of vipashyana teachers, if you just explain this practice to them, they will say that it is vipashyana, and we would not argue. It can be vipashyana, it can actually give rise to insights, as vipashyana is designed to wield, but in the Mahamudra and Dzogchen tradition, this practice is simply presented as shamatha, because at it least does that, even if it may give more. But at its baseline, the practice of settling the mind is a shamatha practice of relaxation, stability and vividness, designed to help melt your course mind into substrate consciousness.

Now when we are directing the attention, in a kind of shamatha mode, to the space of the body and the tactile sensations as we have done before, we are just attending to those sensations associated with earth, water, fire and air that are arising to meet us objectively. In this process, we look at the type of feelings that arise in our way of experiencing those sensations, knowing that these same sensations can be experienced as something pleasant or unpleasant.

But here’s a close parallel, which is: as in the body we have these sensations just rising up to meet us, presenting themselves (so earth is earth, it is not water and it is not anything else, it’s just presenting itself, like the color of the palm of my hand) but then, how we experience them, that is where feelings arise. Similarly, as we will now in a few moments practice, we will direct our attention to the space of the mind and what is appearing there (like Patricia’s form, which is appearing to me right now) and to which I have no choice about it (there it is, it is just coming to me), but then the feelings that arise to me, as I attend to her, then they’re much in my mode of experience. And similarly, thoughts and images appear to us in the space of the mind, but then what type of emotions or feelings (we will just keep it simple, mentioning feelings as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral), but what kind of feelings are triggered by the memories, the thoughts, the images that come to mind?

So in this shamatha practice that we are going to do right now, settling the mind in its natural state, I would suggest that you would focus your primary interest, or attention, on the objectively appearances, which frankly are easier to observe. “There’s a thought, there’s an image” letting your awareness be still.

But as you are aware of them (since we are really preparing to go into the vipashyana practice of close applications of mindfulness to feelings arising in the mind), as you attend to these thoughts and images that present themselves to you, then also take note of, and observe, the type of mental feelings that arise, being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, that are triggered by those thoughts, images and memories.

So in other words, make it three dimensional, as you are not only observing the appearances that arise to you, like they would in a screen, but you are also being aware of the more subjective emotional responses, or affective responses of “I like it”, “I don’t like it”, “It’s pleasant” and “It’s unpleasant” that arise with them. So you see that kind of system, not just images that can be flat, but also the feelings of pleasure and displeasure that arise in relationship to them.

And the idea here is really trying to, in a way, not being bound up in our mind. Just as in the previous practice, the idea was not be fused with the body, with the idea that “you are” your body, that “you are trapped” in your body, or you are “totally tightly held in the body”, but to be able to experience the body arising in the space. And likewise, not to be trapped in your mind, which as we know, can sometimes be a very bad neighborhood.

So don’t be totally embedded in it, captured by it, caged in it, but be aware that those are just thoughts arising (it is not “Just what I am thinking” and that’s it), but those are images, memories arising, and so I am not trapped in those memories.

And then, even more deeply, “This is a feeling arising and I am aware of it, but I am not simply that feeling”. I am not simply happy or sad, I am aware of that feeling arising. And there’s an instant degree of freedom there, as you rest in awareness and observe both the objective and subjective impulses arising in the mind.

Good, let’s jump in.


(6:07) Settle your body in its natural state, and your respiration in its natural rhythm. Settle your mind at ease, calm, quiet and clear, to make your mind serviceable. For a little while, practice mindfulness of breathing. You may count 21 breathes, if you find that useful for calming the discursive mind.

(10:50) And now let your eyes be at least partially opened, with your gaze resting vacantly in the space in front of you, which means you are not really even looking at the space itself, you are not directing your attention there, let alone to any other visual object, it is more as if you’ve let your eyes open, while being caught by a day dream. So there is no interest in the visual field, but nevertheless keep the eyes open to let some light in.

But now turn the full force of your interest, your attention, your mindfulness, to the domain of experience that is purely mental, the domain in which the discursive thoughts, mental images, memories and emotions arise.

If you are new to the practice, then it can be helpful not only once, but repeatedly, to give yourself a very distinct mental target. So one of the easiest ways would be simply to generate a thought, any thought. Here’s a very simply one: “This is the mind”. Syllable by syllable generate the thought, and as you do so, focus your attention single pointed on the thought. Allow the thought to fade back into the space of the mind, and when it comes to an end, very importantly, keep your attention focused right where it was, and see if you can observe the next thought, or maybe an image, that arises spontaneously.

And whatever comes to mind simply observe its nature, observe that mental event that’s arising here and now, without letting your attention be carried off to the referent of that thought or image. Focus right there, in the space of your own mind, and whatever thoughts or image arise in that domain.

(15:10) Again, if you become disoriented or spaced out, not quite sure what to look at, you may deliberated generate a mental image, of anything familiar, a person’s face, a vegetable, a possession, anything you like. Focus your attention upon the image, allow it to fade, and then keep your attention right where it was, focused in the space of the mind, ready to observe the next thing that arises in its own accord. Whatever arises, simply observe its nature, without seeking to modify it, without grasping onto or identifying with it. Simply observe the mental event, as a mental event.

(17:31) And now, as you observe these objective appearances arising in the space of the mind, also be aware of the feelings (pleasant, unpleasant and neutral), that are triggered by these appearances that arise in the space of the mind, and to the best of your ability, simply be aware of the feelings, without identifying with them, without being absorbed by them. Observe their nature, quietly, and sustain the flow of mindfulness without distraction, without grasping.

(21:07) The focus of mindfulness is in the space of mind and whatever arises with in it, both objectively and subjectively. Also remember to apply introspection, monitoring the flow of attention, and applying the remedies as before.

Let’s continue the practice now in silence.

Teachings/instructions after meditation:

(30:20) This practice is something enormously applicable, relevant and beneficial in daily life, whether or not, one’s interested in achieving shamatha or vipashyana. And that comes up quite strongly from an entire secular perspective, namely from Paul Ekman’s work (and his colleagues in affective psychology), where he strongly emphasis even purely in terms of mental wellbeing, of mental health, the importance of being aware of emotions, before they manifest in behavior. As he says, “between the spark and the flame”, so that when some emotion comes up, we can be aware of the emotion that has arisen before it’s effect comes out of our mouth, or manifests in behavior. According to Ekman, when we do not (and he’s making a very obvious, but deep, statement), when we are not aware of the emotions until we express them, then that tends to give rise to “regrettable episodes”, when you say or do something, and then maybe even seconds after, you wish you could have prevented it.

So whether it’s speaking, whether it’s a physical behavior, just give yourself a chance to make a wise choice, because if you are not aware of the emotion until it’s already expressed, then whatever wisdom you have, it didn’t even get a chance, because it’s consequence is already out there in the public domain, and then you cannot apply wisdom to regret it. So it is just really good advice, to be aware of the thoughts and emotions that come up, so that when you see emotions or desires (but right now we are focusing on feelings), but when you see emotions coming up, simply instead of just feeling “I am unhappy”, be aware that “Unhappiness is risen”. And then there are a number of other emotions like anger, spite, and so forth, but the goal is to be aware of them, and then if there is some impulse behind it to speak, then we have that little interlude between the spark and flame of behavior, to simply ask yourself a question: “Is it something to act upon now or not?” and then you can make a decision, but if you are not aware of the emotion until it comes out, then you do not have a chance.

So once again we are trying to become lucid, lucid with respect to whatever is arising in the mind. This is just a key to mental health, to mental wellbeing, and of course living harmoniously in the world.

I will close with a saying from the Tibetan tradition, which is: “When you are with others, watch your mouth. When you are alone, watch your mind”. Here in retreat, for most hours in a day, although there are people in our vicinity, we’re not actively engaged, so we can easily watch our mouth just being quiet. Which means we then have a lot of time to start to get acquainted, and move into the neighborhood of our minds, and see who lives there…

And bring your body guards! :-) Those that have already attended retreats with me (or have heard the retreat podcasts), know that I usually recommend that we bring four body guards: loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. These are really ‘macho’ bodyguards that really protect us.

Transcribed by: Rafael Carlos Giusti

Revised by: Diogo Rolo

Final edition by: Rafael Carlos Giusti


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