Photo: SF Shambhala.
In his book, “Wake Up to Your Life,” Ken McLeod presents a set of explicit meditation instructions that go through all the usual details of how to sit in shamatha and work with the body, breath and mind — instructions that usher us into meditation through the front door, so to speak. But then he adds a set of “backdoor instructions” — short, metaphorical directions that “go through the back door and elicit the appropriate effort while avoiding the confusion often generated by a set of explicit instructions.” McLeod’s backdoor instruction, drawn from the yogic tradition in Tibet, is:
Body like a mountain.
Breath like the wind.
Mind like the sky.
I’ve often found it useful, in my own practice, to reflect on these kinds of poetic, pith instructions. Sometimes, contemplating one or another of these instructions will help me identify an obstacle that is arising in my practice and apply a remedy for it. Here are several backdoor instructions that I find myself returning to again and again.
MEDITATE AS THOUGH YOUR HAIR WERE ON FIRE
This instruction points to the urgency of truly being present and attentive to this moment, this moment, thismoment. Imagine if you suddenly became aware that your hair was on fire, and how you might react to that situation. In an instant, everything else goes out the window and you pay complete and total attention to the crisis of the moment. When you realize your hair is on fire, there’s no time to remain lost in daydreams or to react sluggishly.
Pema Chodron tells a story from Himalayan folklore, about a proud and ambitious woman who wanted to attain enlightenment. Everyone told her, if you really want to attain enlightenment, you should climb that mountain and go see the old hermit lady who lives in a cave at the top of the mountain. So, after much effort, the woman finally reached the top of the mountain and found the cave, where she glimpsed a saintly old lady sitting inside, meditating with a beatific and peaceful expression on her face. Overcome with awe, the woman prostrated at the feet of the old hermit and said, “I want to attain enlightenment. Please show me how.” The old lady regarded her shrewdly and said, “Are you sure you want enlightenment?” The young woman, somewhat taken aback, said, “Yes, of course I’m sure.” Whereupon the peaceful old lady transformed into a terrifying demon who brandished a stick and began to chase the woman out of the cave and down the mountain, shouting: “Now! Now! Now!” For the rest of her life, the woman was never able to escape this awful demon who was always chasing her and exhorting her to be present now, now now.
“Meditate as though your hair were on fire” evokes a similar feeling of the urgency of paying attention to each moment. We don’t need to jump up from our meditation seat and run screaming out of the room (although sometimes, when wrestling with monkey mind, we might feel like doing exactly that). Rather, it’s a question of how we apply ourselves to our meditation. Sogyal Rinpoche talks about how sometimes we find ourselves meditating in a kind of fog, as if we have a hood over our head, and how important it is when we notice that to cut through it and energize ourselves and reinvigorate our awareness. If we go on meditating with the hood over our head, it can grow into a habit, and a habit like that could become a big obstacle for us on the spiritual path.
Trungpa Rinpoche once talked about the quality of that moment when you’ve just stepped in dog shit. There can be no question about it, no ambiguity. That moment is sharp and vivid and precise, and cuts through everything else. Every moment has that quality, if we are awake to it.