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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > What is Meditation? > What is Meditation?

What is Meditation?

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, June 2010

Unedited Transcript
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This evening we are going to be speaking about meditation. And when we hear the word “meditation,” many people have various ideas about it. For some people, it brings out the image of some mystical practice in which somehow you go to a different realm in your mind. For other people, it might bring up some idea of a certain type of discipline that is only done in Asia by certain people. But if we want to look more closely at meditation, we need to ask ourselves three questions, and of course answer them: What is meditation? Why would I want to do meditation? And how do I actually do it?

So this first question, what is meditation? Meditation is a method for training our minds to have a more beneficial state of mind or attitude. And this is done by getting into or generating a certain state of mind and repeating it, accustoming ourselves to that. And of course there are many, many different types of states of mind or attitudes that would be beneficial. One state of mind could be just more relaxed, less tense and worried. One state of mind could be one that is more focused. Or a state of mind that is more quiet, without just constant mental chatter and worry. One can be a state of mind with more understanding of myself, of life, etc. And one can be a state of mind with more love and compassion toward others.

And so we have different types of states of mind that we could achieve through meditation. So then the question is – the second question is – why? Why would I want to generate these states of mind? And for that, we need to look at two factors: What am I aiming for? And what would be the emotional, feeling side of this, of why I would I want to achieve that. So why would I want a more calm and clear mind? Well, one reason, obviously, would be because my mind does not work like that, and it makes me very troubled, it causes me a great deal of unhappiness, and it prevents me from functioning at my best in life. It could also be affecting badly my health. It could be affecting badly my family and my other relationships. It could be affecting badly my work. And so I want to overcome some sort of deficiency, some sort of problem that I have mentally and emotionally. And I am going to take responsibility to do it in an orderly fashion through something called meditation.

And what is the emotional state that would drive me to do this? Well, that could be one of just being completely fed up with and disgusted with this difficult state of mind that I have. We say, “Enough, already. I’ve got to get out of this. I’ve got to do something.” But if, for instance, our aim is to be of more help to my children, to be of more help to my loved ones, then the emotional feeling there could be love and compassion that is driving me to find some method that’s going to enable me to be of better help to them.

Methods for Developing States of Mind

And I think it’s very important here to have a realistic understanding of meditation. So this goes back to our first question, what is meditation? I think it’s unrealistic to think that just by meditation alone, it’s going to solve all my problems. Meditation is a tool; it’s a method. But when we want to achieve a result, our aim, and we have an emotion behind that, a positive emotion that is driving us to that aim, then we have to realize that a result is not achieved by just one cause. There has to be many, many causes and conditions coming together in order to produce a result. For example, we might have high blood pressure and hypertension and, sure, we need meditation. That can help us to worry less. But meditation alone is not going to bring down our blood pressure. It may help, but we also might need to change our diet; we might need to take medication. Many things applied together will bring about a result.

And the actual methods that are used in meditation of course could equally be used to build up a negative state of mind. For example, I’m going to meditate how terrible the enemy is, so that I can go out and kill them. Alright? To develop hatred. But that’s not really what we are speaking about here. But, rather, we’re talking about applying the method to build up a state of mind which is going to be beneficial for us and beneficial for others.

Okay. So then we ask the question, how do we meditate? And there are various methods which are used, depending on the type of state of mind that we want to be able to develop. But one thing that is common to all the methods is that we need to practice. And practice means to repeat the type of exercise over and over and over again. Just as if we want to train our bodies, we have to practice some physical activity over and over again; similarly, we need to do the same thing with our minds.

That brings up another point, which is that meditation is dealing with our state of mind, so it’s using a mental method. Now we could use physical methods to try to change our state of mind. For instance, sitting in various yoga postures and doing various martial art type of movements, tai chi, etc. That’s not meditation; that’s something that could help to generate a certain state of mind, but meditation is something that you do just with your mind. Now of course you could do that while doing some sort of asana postures, while doing tai chi. But those are two things, two different things, two different activities. One we do with our body; one we do with our mind. So, as I said, to bring about an effect, we might need to use many different causes there. So something with our physical body – also diet; diet can affect our state of mind. But meditation is working with the mind itself. So if we want to achieve a certain aim, then we have to see what I can change in my life to bring that about. Meditation would be one thing. Diet might be another thing. Physical exercise might be another thing.

Another thing about meditation is, okay, so we’re practicing getting into a certain state of mind over and over and over again – either a more calm state of mind, or more focused, or more loving, whatever it might be – but the point is not just to be able to generate that while sitting quietly in a meditation by ourselves or with some other people meditating. The whole point of it is to build up this positive state of mind so thoroughly, as a habit, that we can apply it at any time during the day when we need it. Ultimately it becomes something which is just natural; it’s just there all the time – we are more loving, we are more understanding, we are more focused, we are more calm. And if we find ourselves not in that sort of state of mind, all we have to do is remind ourselves, “Oh, be more loving,” and, just like that [snaps fingers]. Because we have built up, through practice, this state of mind, then we can just instantly go to that state of mind. When we find ourselves, for instance, losing our temper – these sort of things – “No, I don’t want to be like that!” [snaps fingers] “Loving.”

But to generate these states of mind, like being loving, it’s not just a matter of discipline. For instance, to be more loving we need have some understanding of why to be more loving. So, for instance, in that case it can be that we’re all interconnected with each other. You are a human being just like I am. You have feelings just as I do. You want to be liked and not ignored or disliked, the same as me. And we’re all here together on this planet and we need to get along with each other.

One could think of an example: Suppose you were in an elevator with ten people and, all of a sudden, the elevator got stuck and you were trapped there for a few days. How would you relate to the other people in the elevator? Here we are. We are stuck together. We’re all in the same situation. Somehow we have to get along with each other. If we start fighting with each other in this small space, it’s going to be a disaster, isn’t it. Somehow we have to work together, cooperate, with patience, all together to try to get out of this situation. So if we think of this planet as a very large elevator, then it can be of help.

So it’s by thinking like this that then we can generate a state of mind of love toward others, and tolerance. To just sit there and say, “I’m going to be more loving” – like that – it’s very hard to generate any feeling, isn’t it? So when we ask how to meditate, one method is to build up a certain state of mind, like this example of being more loving and tolerant. So we learn about some way of thinking like this. We think about it till we understand it and it makes sense to us. And then we try to actually generate it while sitting quietly in meditation while imagining other people around us – could be people that we know; it could be strangers in magazine pictures – and try to generate this state of mind.

Another method which is used is to just quiet the mind down, so that we get to a more natural state of mind. Now this is very important to understand here. When we are trying to quiet down, it’s not that we’re aiming to be like a radio that’s turned off. That is not at all the aim; you might as well go to sleep. The aim is to quiet all disturbing states of mind that could be chattering, mental chattering in our head. Especially when it’s worrying or thinking about what happened before and what might happen in the future. What am I going to have for supper? What am I going to do today? This type of thing. But all of those things are really – they’re disturbances. The same thing, in terms of certain emotions can be very disturbing, and we want to quiet them down as well. Like being nervous, being frightened, these type of things one also needs to quiet down. But when we quiet down, what we want to be left with is a state of mind which is very clear and alert; a state of mind which either we are able to generate into some love and understanding, or which just has the natural human warmth that we all have. So that requires a very, very deep relaxation, not just relaxation of the muscles in the body, which of course is necessary, but relaxation of the mental and emotional tenseness or tightness which prevents us from feeling anything, from feeling the natural warmth, the natural clarity of the mind. So this is not an exercise to just turn off and become like a robot.

These states of mind are not very easy to generate. Sometimes they are quite painful, in the sense of one type of beneficial state of mind can be one in which we have more understanding of ourselves and our situation in life. You see, to have a quiet mind is just a tool; it’s not the final aim. But if we have a mind which is more calm, more relaxed, more clear, more open, then we can use it. We can use it for daily life of course, but we could also use it while sitting in meditation to try to gain more understanding of our life situation.

Mental Wandering

Some people think that meditation means to stop thinking. That’s a misunderstanding. What we mean by that, when you hear statements like that, is that we want to stop all the extraneous unnecessary thinking, like worry; and “what am I going to have for supper”; and “you said that to me yesterday, you’re a horrible person” – that type of thinking. All of that is in the category of mental wandering and disturbing thoughts. But if we have a clear mind, then we can think much more clearly about: “What have I been doing in my life? What’s going on in this relationship that I have? Is it healthy? Is it unhealthy?” We can either be analytical in that type of way – this is called introspection, being more introspective about what’s going on inside us, what’s happening in our lives. So to understand that, we need clarity, we need a calm quiet mind. So meditation can be a tool that brings us to that state.

Nonconceptual Understanding

Also, when you talk about thinking, we hear a lot mention in a lot of texts about: “stop being conceptual; be nonconceptual.” So in order to actually try to be that way, we have to understand what we mean by conceptual. Well, some people think that conceptual is just the “Blah blah blah” – the talking in our minds. We need to differentiate verbalizing in our minds and having understanding. What we really need is understanding, whether we verbalize or not. Sometimes it’s helpful; sometimes it’s not helpful. Do you know the difference between the two? For instance, tying our shoes. We understand how to tie our shoes. Most of us, I hope. Do you have to actually verbalize what I do with this lace and that lace when you tie it? No. In fact I think that most of us would have great difficulty describing in words to somebody how you tie your shoes. But nevertheless we have understanding.

So when we try to be nonconceptual, it doesn’t mean that we no longer have any understanding of something. We certainly want to maintain understanding. Without understanding, you can’t do anything in life. You can’t tie your shoes. You can’t open the door. You can’t do anything, can you? So conceptualization is not just talking about verbalization. And sometimes verbalization is helpful. We need verbalization to be able to communicate to others, don’t we? Do we need verbalization in our thinking? Well, it’s not absolutely necessary, but verbalization in itself is just something neutral. We have some meditations which involve verbalization. For instance, mantras, which maintain a certain type of rhythm or vibration in the mind, which is very helpful and it helps us to stay focused on a certain state of mind. Like, for instance, when we are generating compassion and love. If you are reciting a mantra like OM MANI PADME HUM, it’s a bit easier to stay focused on that loving state of mind. So verbalization itself is not the problem. Although of course we need to quiet the mind that is just chattering with garbage. That, of course, we have to quiet.

So what is conceptualization? What is the conceptual mind? Conceptual mind has to do with thinking in terms of categories. Now there are various types of categories. One is what we call a preconception. A preconception is like, “I expect you to always be like this.” You are a terrible person because in the past you did this and this and that, and now I have this preconception that, no matter what, you are going to continue to be a terrible person. We have judged already that this person is stupid, or this person is so wonderful they are going to do what I ask them to do. That’s a preconception. And of course if we think that way, and we project it onto other people or onto ourselves – that I’m no good, I’m not going to be able to do anything, this type of thing – there’s a big block between ourselves and how we relate with the world and with ourselves. So preconception is a type of category. We fit everything, interacting with this person, into this category of “you’re stupid.” So being nonconceptual, on one level – there are many, many levels of it – but one level would be to just be open to situations as they arise. Now that doesn’t mean to drop all understanding. Like, for instance, “This dog bites.” In the past, this dog has bitten many people if you try to go close to it. So we are careful with the dog. So we have some understanding. But we don’t have this preconception that of course the dog is going to bite me, so I’m not even going to try to go near it. So this is a gentle balance here.

So how do we develop that in meditation? In meditating, one of the main instructions is meditate without any expectations and without any worries. The expectation that it’s going to go wonderfully, or the worry that “Oh my legs are going to start to hurt,” or “I can’t do it” – these types of things. These are preconceptions. Or we are sitting there and we are meditating and then, all of a sudden, we start thinking, “Wow, this is really going great!” Now we’ve put it into some category; that usually ruins it instantly. So this is a very simple level of explaining what it means to be nonconceptual, but it’s where we start.

Situations Conducive to Meditation

Now, for meditating of course we need a conducive situation. And some people think that a conducive situation has to be what I would call almost a Hollywood type of setting. It has to be a special room with candles, and a certain type of music, and incense, and – it’s a whole Hollywood movie set. That’s not necessary. If you want to have that, okay. But it’s certainly not necessary.

What is usually always recommended is that the place be neat and clean. We need to show respect for ourselves and what we are doing. So usually it’s the practice to clean the room where you are going to be meditating. Get everything in order. Don’t have clothes thrown all over the floor, etc. If the environment around us is orderly, it helps for the mind to become orderly. If the environment is chaotic, it affects the mind. So that needs to be there. And also it’s very helpful, especially in the beginning, if it’s quiet. In the Buddhist tradition, which is what I come from, we certainly do not meditate with music. Music is an external source to try to make us more calm, and so on. We don’t want to rely on an external source. We want to be able to generate it internally. And music, in many cases, can be quite hypnotic, and you don’t want to be in some sort of daze. So we don’t need to tranquilize ourselves, like in the waiting room of the dentist, with this gentle music to try to calm us down. That’s not a meditation atmosphere.

And as for sitting, if we look at the different Asian traditions, there are many different ways of sitting in meditation. The Tibetans and Indians sit cross-legged. The Japanese sit with their legs behind them. People in Thailand sit with their legs to the side. And so the main thing is to sit in a position that’s going to be comfortable. And so if we need to sit in a chair, there’s no problem. For certain very advanced exercises in meditation in which we’re also working with the energy systems of the body, then the posture is important. But we need to be able to meditate in any type of situation. So if we’re used to sitting cross-legged on a cushion, fine; but maybe you’re on a plane or you’re on a train and so you can’t do that, so you meditate while sitting in your seat – not a problem.

It’s important in the beginning that it be quiet. But for many of us it’s not so easy to find a place that’s quiet, especially if we live in the city. So, many people meditate early in the morning or late at night when there’s less traffic noise. And eventually, when we become accustomed enough and advanced enough, then noise doesn’t bother us. But that’s very, very difficult in the beginning. In general, it’s important to see what time of day suits us the best. To meditate right directly after eating – most people, their energy goes down after eating; you get tired, so that’s not the best time to meditate, for example. Some people, when they wake up in the morning, are very fresh and alert; other people are half asleep for most of the morning. So you have to see for yourself. Some people are more alert late at night. Other people, if they try to meditate at night before they go to sleep, it’s a struggle to stay awake. So that’s not productive. So it’s important to judge for ourselves what suits us.

Same thing with how we sit. If we are sitting cross-legged, for example, then it’s always recommended that we have a cushion beneath our behind, but there are many people that don’t use a cushion behind them. So you have to see what works. And if we use a cushion, again, you have to see for yourself how high the cushion, how hard, how soft the cushion. You have to find a type of cushion and a type of posture that’s going to minimize your legs falling asleep and your whole session being one of pain and discomfort. So the type of cushion that you use is quite important; it can make a difference.

Also the amount of time that we meditate is going to vary as we progress. In the beginning, it’s always recommended that we mediate for just a very short time – three or five minutes – because it’s going to be very difficult for us to concentrate and be focused for any longer than that. And so it’s better to have a short period in which we are more focused, than a long period in which we are just mentally wandering and daydreaming or falling asleep. The meditation session must not become a torture session in which we can’t wait until it’s over, and we’re just sitting there feeling horrible because our legs hurt. If we are doing a certain type of Zen meditation, then maintaining the posture and not moving is very important. In other types of meditation, if you have to move your leg, you move your leg – it’s no big deal. In all these sorts of spiritual practices, it’s very important to be relaxed. Don’t make such a big, holy, holy deal out of it. Of course we show respect for what we are doing, but don’t make it into a dramatic thing – that I’m such a holy being sitting here and I have to be perfect.

And one of the most important principles to remember is that everything goes up and down. So some days our meditation will go well; some days it won’t go well. Some days we will feel like meditating; some days we won’t. It’s never going to be the case that every day it’s going to get better and better and better. Progress is not linear that way. But it’s always going to be up and down. And maybe after a few years you’ll be able to see a general trend that it’s getting better, but it’s always going to be the case that some days will be better than others. So, as one of my teachers would say, “Nothing special.” It’s going well – nothing special. It’s not going well – nothing special. You just continue. That’s what is most important, is to persevere. Do it every day, like practicing the piano. You have to do it every day. And if you’re doing it just for a few minutes at a time, fine. Then you take a break, and then you do it for another few minutes, and then you take another little break, another few minutes. Do it like that, rather than sitting for an hour in a torture session.

Meditation on the Breath

So we can ask, how do people start with meditation? If we want to meditate, how would I begin? And for most people, in many traditions, the way that we begin is with meditation focusing on the breathing. And when we’re meditating on the breathing, we are just breathing normally, not too fast, not too slow, not too deeply, not too shallow – just normal, through the nose. I mean, we certainly don’t hyperventilate, then we become very, very dizzy. It’s not very helpful at all.

And we can focus on the breath in two places, either the sensation of the breath coming in and out of the nose, or the sensation of the stomach going in and out as we breathe. And if our mind is wandering a great deal and we are up in the clouds, in a sense – what we call “spaced out,” in English – then focusing on the stomach, around the navel, going in and out helps to ground us. And if, on the other hand, we are very sleepy and dull, then focusing on the sensation of the breath coming in and out the nose helps to raise the energy. So, again, we judge for ourselves what we need at any particular time. And the whole point is to be focused on the breathing with awareness of what’s going on. It’s not that you’re turning your mind off. You’re aware of the sensation without saying anything in our minds.

And the real work that’s involved here is to recognize, as soon as possible, when our attention wanders away – and bring it back. Or if we start to become dull and sleepy, to wake ourselves up. That’s the work that’s involved here. And we shouldn’t fool ourselves; it’s not easy, because we tend to be very attached with our thoughts and mental wandering, and we forget that we need to bring our attention back. We have laziness. And especially if there’s some disturbing emotion involved with that thought, like thinking of someone that we’re very attached to that we miss, or someone that we’re really angry with, then it’s even more difficult to bring the attention back. But the breath is always there, so it is something that is stable that we can bring our attention back to more easily than other objects.

And focusing on the breath has many other benefits. The breath is very much connected with the body. And if we’re the type of person that’s too much in thoughts and in our mind, and head in the clouds, and so on, then focusing on the breath – regardless of where, what point in the body we focus on – helps to ground us, to bring us more back into our body, into reality. And also it’s very helpful if we have pain. In fact, breathing meditations have been adopted in some hospitals, particularly in the United States, for pain management. If you think of it: a baby is crying, and if the mother holds the baby to her breast and the baby feels the mother’s breathing going in and out, it is something which is very calming. And so, similarly, if we focus on our own breathing, it’s something which can help to calm us down, particularly if we have a lot of pain – and not just talking about physical pain, but it can also be emotional pain. So we have this type of meditation.

Why don’t we try it for a few minutes. Also I should mention what you do with your eyes. In some traditions, you meditate with your eyes closed. Its advantage is that you have less distraction. Its disadvantage is that it’s more easy to fall asleep. Also it gets you in the habit that if I want to calm down or meditate I have to close my eyes, which is then very difficult in real life. The Tibetans meditate with their eyes open, but not wide open and looking around, but just looking loosely down toward the floor. And, again, we have to judge for ourselves what is best.

[silence for meditation]

Generating Love toward Others

Okay. Once we have quieted down with meditations like this on the breath, then we can use that quiet and alert state of mind. We can use it to try to be more aware of what my emotional state is. But we can use it, for instance, in a meditation to generate more love toward others. So let’s try that. And so to generate love you have to work yourselves up to a state of love. In the beginning, you can’t just say: [snaps fingers] “That’s it. I love everybody.” That doesn’t have any feeling to it. So, through a thought process – here thought is our friend; it’s helpful, not something that we want to get rid of – but through a thinking process, we remind ourselves we’re all interconnected, we’re all here together, everybody’s the same. We all want to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy, everybody wants to be liked, no one wants to be disliked or ignored – just as is the case with me. And since we’re all here together and interconnected, then love is the feeling of “may everybody be happy and have the causes for happiness; how wonderful it would be if everybody were happy, if nobody had any problems.” And by building ourselves up to this state of mind and heart, of love, then we imagine a warm sort of light, like a yellow light, shining from us, with love, out to everybody. Like the sun. So let’s try that:

We’re all interconnected. Nobody exists in isolation from everybody else. Everybody’s the same. Everybody wants to be happy; nobody wants to be unhappy, just like me. Everybody wants to be liked; nobody wants to be disliked or ignored, same as me. So how wonderful it would be if everybody could be happy. How wonderful it would be if I could bring happiness to everyone. And then, with some warm feeling in our hearts, we imagine this warm loving feeling shining from us like a gentle yellow light from the sun and reaching everyone equally. May everyone be happy.

And, again, if our attention wanders, we bring it back to this feeling.

[silence for meditation]

Building up Beneficial Habits for Daily Life

Good. So, if we accustom ourselves to these types of meditation, then we can develop tools that we can use in our daily life. So just to focus on our breath is not going to be – well, we don’t have to be doing it all day long. That’s not the final aim, is it? But by always bringing our attention back to a focus, then we can use that in daily life. For instance, when we’re speaking with somebody and they’re speaking back to us. If our mind starts to wander and think, you know, “When are they going to shut up, already?” and making all sorts of judgments and comments in our mind about what they are saying, we need to quiet all of that and just bring our attention back to the person and what they are saying. And generate that state of mind that understands this is a human being; they want to be liked; they want to be listened to when they are talking, when they are speaking to us; they want to be taken seriously. Just as we do.

So the skills that we develop in meditation, the whole purpose is to be able to apply them in daily life – we’re not aiming to get the Olympic gold medal for being able to sit perfectly in meditation – this is the aim. So that’s why we started our discussion with the whole emphasis on: What are we aiming for? Why do we want to meditate? What’s the purpose? And we want to meditate in order to be able to help us in our lives – personally, and in our interactions with others. And to do that I need to build up more beneficial habits. And this is what meditation is all about.

So, what questions do you have?

Tantric Meditation

Question: What is tantric meditation?

Alex: What is tantric meditation? Well, we find it in both Hinduism and Buddhism, so I’ll just speak in terms of Buddhism. It’s a very advanced practice – it’s not a beginner practice – in which we visualize ourselves as a Buddha-figure (yi-dam), a type of Buddha. And on the basis of understanding reality: that I’m not there yet, but I have all the potentials to be able to become an enlightened Buddha. And in our imaginations we imagine acting like a Buddha – in order words, sending out light and benefitting everybody; and being able to communicate perfectly with everybody; and so on; being able to multiply into millions of forms to be able to benefit others – while knowing that we’re not there yet. But by practicing in this way, it helps to build up the causes for becoming like that more quickly.

And all these Buddha-figures that we visualize ourselves as – not all of them, but many of them – have multiple arms, and multiple legs, and multiple faces. And these all represent different realizations or understandings that we have as a Buddha – that we need to develop, and that we have as a Buddha. So, for instance, six arms could represent the six far-reaching attitudes (pha-rol-tu phyin-pa) or paramitas, so: generosity, ethical discipline, patience, perseverance, stability of mind, and discriminating awareness (that’s usually called wisdom). Now to try to have all of those at the same time, in our minds, is very difficult if we try to do that abstractly. But if we represent these six graphically, with these six arms, it’s easier to try to put it all together and have these six together in our state of mind at the same time. And so for this reason, tantra’s a very advanced practice. If we haven’t done all the practices earlier, before this, to be able to generate generosity, to be able to generate patience, etc., how could you possibly generate all of them at the same time? And if we don’t understand the reality of what’s going on – if we don’t understand that this is simply in our imagination based on our potentials, and we don’t exist solidly as this figure, or solidly stuck in my current level of development – if we don’t understand that, then we think I really am this figure, and that is no different from a crazy person thinking that they are Cleopatra or Napoleon. And so tantra practice is something that has to be entered upon very carefully and not as a beginner.

Also there are some tantra practices – I mean there’s different classes of tantra, but there’s some that work with the energy systems of the body: chakras, channels, etc. And the point of all of that is to be able to work with this subtle energy system with perfect concentration in order to get to the subtlest level of mind, which is the most conducive for seeing reality and cutting through confusion.

But tantra practice is something which really requires the guidance of a properly qualified teacher. And, in general, meditation requires a qualified teacher, not just somebody to teach us how to sit. But if we have problems that come up, and so on, somebody who has a great deal of experience, personal experience, who can guide us – to help us if we have some problems. That’s very important. And of course our attitude towards this teacher needs to be one of confidence, based on really evaluating them – are they really qualified or not? And that becomes very difficult, because there are many charlatans who claim to be spiritual teachers, and many teachers who are not very well qualified. So one has to be very discriminating in terms of finding a teacher, and not go to somebody just because they happen to be popular.

Dealing with Blissful Feelings during Meditation

Question: In dzogchen meditation, it is said that when a practitioner is experiencing the rigpa state of mind, then he has various sorts of feelings or experiences, like a blissful state of mind, like the feeling of “I am one with the whole world and with others.” It is said that it is very important not to be attached to these kinds of feelings. But these feelings arise anyway; we can’t avoid the arising of these feelings. So how do we deal with this problem?

Alex: Well, I can just quote my teacher: “Nothing special.” Nothing special, it’s just a blissful feeling. First of all, to actually achieve a state of rigpa is so unbelievably advanced and difficult that most of the time we are fooling ourselves into thinking that we’ve achieved it. For those who are unfamiliar, “rigpa” means a pure awareness. And it’s the most subtle, subtle, subtle level of mind that underlies all moments of more gross levels of mind. And it is that level of mind in terms of its situation of being “unstained,” it’s called – pure. In other words, that level of mind could still have certain habits with it that can cause problems in the future. So we’re talking about that state of mind in its most purified state. That’s unbelievably subtle, and it has certain qualities. And one is being blissful, but that doesn’t mean, “Whoopeeee! Blissful!” – like that. It naturally radiates out with warmth to communicate to others. And it has a quality of deep understanding of reality. But, within that, the understanding of reality is not that we’re all one – that’s a Hindu idea; that’s not in Buddhism. We are all the same. We all exist in the same way. We all have the same potentials. But in Buddhism we always speak in terms of everybody always, even as Buddhas, retaining their individuality. It’s not that we become one big undifferentiated soup. We’re all interconnected with each other as individuals.

But, in any case, my point is that we can achieve a blissful state of mind that’s not talking about the blissful state of mind of rigpa. There are many other blissful states of mind that one can achieve before that. When the mind is perfectly concentrated it’s another type of blissful mind. As the mind gets more and more freed of confusion it becomes more blissful. But, regardless of the mind becoming more blissful, more clear, any of these so-called experiences that come in meditation, the instruction is “nothing special.” Don’t make a big deal out of it. So, without expecting it to happen, without being disappointed when it goes away. That sounds a little bit trivial and flippant, to say “nothing special,” but actually that’s quite profound if one meditates and becomes familiar with this state of mind of “nothing is special.” No big deal. That’s helpful in any situation, this idea of “nothing special.” I bang my foot against the table in the dark, and it hurts. Well, nothing special. Of course it hurts, so what? So you got an experience in meditation that’s blissful, so what? Big deal. Is it nice? Yes. Does my foot hurt when I bang it? Yes. Well, so what?

Obviously there are deeper methods, but this is an initial one that actually works.

What else?

The Meaning of Interconnectivity

Question: You explained a lot about the interconnectivity of all beings. What does it mean? Does it mean that all our individual mind-streams are interconnected? And what do highly developed beings experience? I mean, do they experience some sort of connection to the universal stream of mind? I ask because I am living near a railway station, and in my everyday life I see people who are sick, who are poor, who have a great deal of suffering; and my question is, what shall I actually feel toward them, in terms of this interconnection? So what does the term “interconnectivity” actually mean?

Alex: There are many different levels of our interconnection with everyone. Buddhism certainly doesn’t say that we are all connected by a little pipe of light, or something like that. Not in that way. Buddhism doesn’t assert some universal stream of mind or universal consciousness that we’re all part of. But if we look at what Buddhism itself says, Buddhism thinks in terms of rebirth, with no beginning. So if there’s a finite number of beings and an infinite time (no beginning), then at some time every being has been my mother, or my father, or my best friend.

So of course that way of thinking requires a confident belief in no beginning and in rebirth. So for many of us who have not grown up in a society in which everybody believes in rebirth, then that type of argument is not terrible convincing. So there’s another type of interconnection that’s explained. It is that everything that we make use of and enjoy has come from the work of others. So in this building, everything – where did this electricity come from? The people who made the glass bulbs, the people who got the chemicals, who got it from the earth, who made the wires, who made the roads, who made the power lines, who… If you start to think about the amount of beings that are involved in making absolutely everything that we use, and everything that we eat, and everything that we wear, we start to see how we are interconnected and dependent on everybody. And the poor people, and so on, that you mentioned were suffering by the railway station. Well, the whole economy is interconnected. If the government is giving them any sort of financial help – maybe they’re not, but if they are – or people are somehow helping them, well, where does that money come from? And that affects the whole economy. It affects the whole society.

We’re all interconnected in that way. And people in some other part of the world are polluting terribly, or they are using so much energy, and so on. Well, that affects us as well. We don’t live in isolation. That pollution is going to come to us. Environmental disaster is a disaster for everybody. And people in some other part of the world – in America there’s some economic crisis that went on with the banks, and so on, and as a result Russia’s not selling as much oil as before, or the price has gone down. That affects the economy and the welfare of everybody in the country. So everything is interconnected in that way. It’s meant on this level, not on some mystical level; and you don’t have to bring in past lives and “everybody’s been my mother” in order to understand this.

Okay. Well, why don’t we end here. Thank you very much.