The Lojong teachings encourage us to transform our struggles in life to the fuel for awakening. Therefore, this group of teachings is very pithy, practical and a great place to start. If you’d like to follow along, there are many books to choose from, but Pema Chodron’s is one of my favorites. And it’s title, Start Where you Are, seems like the perfect New Year’s book!
When we think about starting fresh, how do we do that? These teachings by describing the two basic types of meditation: Shamatha and Vipassana. Shamatha is the type of meditation we start with on Sunday mornings, which is translated as calm abiding. We are just resting in awareness of things left just as they are, aware when we become distracted and bringing the mind back to the point of awareness. It prepares the mind for Vipassana.
Vipassana is often translated as seeing things as they are, no added stuff. But more deeply, it’s translated as insight meditation, seeing clearly into the nature of all things. Not just calmly resting in awareness but taking awareness to a deeper, broader, more profound level. As if we could see down to the levels of electrons and protons and neutrons, but even more minute, beyond even the tiniest “pieces” of being, and at the same time, more expansively, seeing all things at once in the very broadest sense. The practice of Vipassana is cultivating insight into the truest meaning of all things.
The other set of “preliminaries” that is an important starting place are the Four Mind Changers, or the Four Reflections–four thoughts that motivate the mind toward practicing and studying these Truth Principles.
The first reflection encourages us to contemplate the preciousness of our human birth. A well-known Buddhist meditation is the simple phrase: Since death is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do? Living can, at times, be taken for granted. Imagine all the activities and events that had to take place or not take place for you to be here reading this, in this very moment. Human beings are somewhat fragile, and being born ain’t easy. We each have had our own challenges, the issues in our lives that we grappled with. We all navigated through all the dangers and pitfalls of our lives to arrive at this moment right now. So, to experience the manifestation of spirit is quite miraculous. We don’t know what tomorrow may bring. We don’t know for sure what will happen later today. But by contemplating this fact, we can pour ourselves wholeheartedly into this moment. This is another paradox in Buddhism. To live life fully, we must recognize how easy it is to not live. This first reflection is telling us to not take so much for granted, to wake up with gratitude to this experience of life in all its complexity.
The second mind-changer or reflection is challenging us to wake up from this dreamlike state of pretending that anything is permanent. As most of us experience, western culture is often about accumulating things, accumulating experiences and even accumulating people in our lives. Checking off the list of things and activities and people we need to have in our lives in order to be happy, and wanting ourselves, and those things and those people to not only be a certain way, but to also stay whatever way it is that we like them to be. We tried to control our lives so things can stay fun and cushy. But no matter how much we try, we cannot make things stay the same. Nor should we try. The things we like fade away as do the things we don’t like–both the things we like and dislike can awaken us. A child once told Thich Nhat Hanh how grateful she was that things change. Otherwise, she would never grow up! So, we are asked to loosen up a bit, not try to force everything and everyone to be just the way we think we want it or them…accepting things just as they are, not out of complacency but as the best place to start living. With this mind changer, we are practicing accepting the ever-changing-ness of life. It doesn’t mean that Buddhists don’t do anything productive. It means we first see with fresh eyes what is happening right now. Instead of acting out of habit, we can imagine that we don’t know and must look again. And from this place of just seeing, just being, we find all new ways of being and doing.
We can try seeing things and actions and people with fresh eyes, adding compassion and wisdom to each situation instead of a checklist for improvement. This is critically important to the way we view our own bodies our own lives. Many of us are constantly trying to get things just right. Get a new haircut, find the perfect dress. Instead, this reflection is encouraging us to waking up each morning and first focus on full awareness, instead of first on the to-do list. This idea seems like the polar opposite of what we have been taught to do, but it’s been proven to work a heck of a lot better than the method of looking for external happiness. Our lives are like sand mandalas–everything we have will eventually wash away. We may wish for certain things in our lives to change more quickly or other situations to not change at all. But the question is: How do we look at each situation with curiosity and nonjudgment? Our lives will continue to change and morph and become something entirely different, whether we want them to or not. The amount of joy in the journey is determined by whether we loosely ride the waves of uncertainty, or we grasp at everything with tight white knuckles.
The third reflection is that everything we do has consequences. In Hinduism, the belief is that karma is unrelenting; if this then that. But Buddha turned the idea of karma on its side. His teachings are that yes, there is the law of cause and effect, but it is far more complex than we can imagine. It is far more helpful to focus on what we do right now in this moment, than to worry about what we did ten years ago. This moment is the only place where we can change our lives. How can we be more kind and generous and grateful and wise right now? There is this element of grace that exists in Buddhism. The idea is that we can wake up at any moment and begin increasing the compassion and wisdom in our lives.
The four reflection is about how labeling things as good, bad or irrelevant is causing us suffering, If we don’t try something new, we will continue to get the same suffering in our lives. We focus on what we’re afraid of, what we don’t want. Instead, this reflection is encouraging us to see what is and work with it. Sometimes suffering may seem too harsh a word, but even that vague sense of dissatisfaction is robbing you of the joy just waiting to be discovered in each moment. Don’t live your life waiting for things to be different. Happiness is about what is within us, not what is happening to us. Aldous Huxley said that the measure of man is not what happens to him, but what he does with what happens to him.
So, this last reflection on curiosity and nonjudgment is to fully experience not knowing. What if it was okay to not know, but just to keep asking the question with an open heart? What if the answers that we are seeking are there in the silence of each moment? Not knowing allows us to find new answers. We can reflect on the idea of “I don’t know”.
So, the four reflections are:
· The preciousness of our human birth
· The contemplation of impermanence
· The law of motivation/intention (cause) and results (effect)
· The fact that craving, aversion and ignoring causes suffering and will never bring us complete happiness
These four reflection are powerful tools to support us in transforming our sense of living, to infuse deep happiness into life regardless of our external circumstances.
The purpose of this teaching is to see with fresh eyes, to hear with fresh ears, to taste, to smell, to feel the warmth of the breeze on our skin, as if for the first time. This week, imagine that you are experiencing some activity for the very first time. Imagine that you truly don’t know. And see how that changes the experience.