We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
Overcoming the Obstacles to Peace
We overcome the obstacles in shamatha by applying remedies or antidotes. Two themes run through all of them:
- Take a cheerful attitude toward yourself.
- Develop greater synchronization between your mind and body, your intention and execution.
Cheerfulness and synchronization of body and mind are like two currents of energy and commitment that run through all the antidotes in shamatha meditation, and propel realization. More skill and greater strength in applying the antidotes come with time and experience.
Antidotes to Laziness
Of the eight antidotes, four are applied to laziness. This is a clear message that laziness is the most powerful and therefore the hardest of the obstacles to overcome. It’s the ground or starting point—or non-starting point actually, because if you can’t even get yourself to the cushion, you have no opportunity to work with the other obstacles at all.
The four antidotes to laziness have a progression, and each has an organic logic within that progression. As you study them, you might reflect on this.
The first antidote is faith. This particular kind of faith has nothing to do with religious faith, but instead has to do with cultivating trust in the practice itself. Because you have had glimpses of the beneficial effects of the practice and its qualities of strength and goodness, you feel that meditating is the right thing to do.
Even in the midst of your laziness and resistance, there is some part of you that knows practicing is a good thing to do, a helpful thing to do. You feel that it’s healthy to be involved with the Dharma, that it’s not crazy to be involved with at all. You feel that it is fundamentally healthy to engage in practice and to study the teachings, because it strikes you as straightforward and sane. You have faith that this is the case. While it may not be a faith you can articulate, it is a powerful intuitive confidence in the path.
The pioneering teacher Alan Watts made a compelling distinction between belief and faith. He said that belief is the wish that the truth turn out to be what you want it to be, whereas faith is a basic openness to the truth whatever it may turn out to be. He said,
“Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go.”
This openness is the essence of the nontheistic practices the Buddha taught. Your faith is not placed in the expectation that someone else will save you. Instead, you are working with your own mind and resources and developing your own positive qualities—and faith in your own capacity for awakening is an essential part of this. It can take you a long way—all the way in fact!
The second antidote to laziness is respect. It is also referred to as “having a sense of sacredness.” This sacredness goes beyond the conventional religious understanding—the idea that because God gave an ancient decree that something is sacred, therefore, it must be so. This kind of decree has left humanity with many empty rituals that hang on long after people have ceased to believe in them.
This kind of sacredness is very up to date and in the moment. It’s the sense that your life is worth respecting, that it is worth taking good care of. Your environment is worthy of tending to. You are also worth treating well—and you can do so without self-indulgence, making demands, or engaging in wretched excess of any kind.
Sacredness here means that your life has an inherent dignity. You respond by wanting to cultivate the presence of that natural dignity in your life because you respect it and yourself, both. This respect is why you don’t trash yourself or your environment at all. It’s an attitude that makes you want to clean up your home and put fresh flowers on the table. You feel that your life is worth cleaning up and adorning.
Respect is an important antidote to laziness because what happens with laziness, both in your practice and in your life, is that your world begins to fall apart around the edges. It begins to fray at the collar or the cuffs because you stop taking care of things properly. In this way, respect is bringing the attitude of sacredness to all the ordinary details of your life. Meditation is one of those ordinary details; you attend to it daily as a vital part of your well-being, just as weekly you attend to taking out the garbage and organizing the recyclables.
The third antidote to laziness is effort. Here you actively work with the inspirations that come from having faith and respect. Faith and respect are powerful positive mindsets, but effort is the expression of the adage that actions always speak louder than words. Effort is the way you embody the faith and respect, the way you actualize them by applying them in activity. You know deep inside that, after all the talking about it and thinking about it, you have to do it. You know that your good intention is not quite enough and that in order to actually make it real, effort is required.
In Chapter 15, I described the right way to relate to effort—as an expression of appreciation and even joy—and it may be helpful to read from within this new application of effort as an antidote to laziness.
As my teacher used to say, “Just do it.” Nike must have stolen the line from him! Because it’s a good one.
The fourth and last antidote to laziness is called shinjang. This is a Tibetan word that means “completely processed.” My teacher used to compare it to a cotton shirt that’s been worn many times and washed many times. As a result, it fits you really well. It’s very soft and pliable and comfortable and you always look forward to wearing it.
Similarly, when faith and respect are mixed again and again with effort, the experience of shinjang arises. This is how you feel after you’ve practiced diligently and regularly for a long time. Your body and mind do become more synchronized. There is a greater sense of relaxation, and your mind has become flexible. There is a growing feeling that going to the meditation cushion, sitting down on it, and practicing is not something that is being imposed on you. Rather, it feels like the natural expression of your dignity as a human being.
To sit upright in good posture, to work with your mind in a disciplined, gentle way—that is how to be a human being, in the best sense. The more you practice with shinjang, the more you relax into the dignity of who you really are.
From this point of view, practice is not a punishment. Neither is it a form of self-improvement nor a form of self-correction. You are flipping that attitude around altogether by understanding that practice is how you truly and fully express yourself as a human being. Perhaps no dharma teacher has been more eloquent in bringing this point home than Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the Japanese Zen master who, beginning in 1959, pioneered the teaching of buddhadharma in the West. Throughout his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki Roshi seems to be talking about this very subject. Practice, he says, is “just resuming our basic nature.” He loves to use the word “resume”—as if we had gotten sidetracked for awhile, but then came back and sat in meditation and realized, “Oh yes, what a relief. I’m back. This is the best. This is it. This is my life. Whatever it is, this is what it is right now, and I’m right here with it and it is good. There is no need to avoid or postpone—because this is it.”
With shinjang comes a quality of cheerfulness that you actually experience in your body. Because as you give up your resistance to simply going and doing the practice, there is a sense of relaxation as you ease into it. You slide into meditation the way a seal slips into water—so symbiotic it’s as if you were the same. That’s shinjang. It’s the fruition that arises from faith, respect, and continual effort—the willingness to just do it.
Antidote to Forgetfulness
The fifth antidote applies to the obstacle of forgetfulness, in which you forget the instructions for the technique or forget to apply what you have learned. This remedy is described as having a folksy attitude and is an extension of shinjang. It’s taking the attitude that practice is an ordinary and natural thing to do. Practice is not something strange or foreign that has been imposed on you. You don’t have to fight it because it isn’t an alien. It’s like taking a shower to get clean—you just remember what to do because it has become second nature.
When you make a big deal out of meditation practice, you set up a constant battle with it. You begin to feel that the technique has been forced on you, and that the only way you can express your rebellion is to forget what was taught as often as possible. What starts as resistance to the technique sets the stage for forgetfulness.
I once saw a cartoon of a dog standing at a pharmacist’s counter and the druggist is handing the dog a bottle of pills. The caption reads, “Here. Just find someone to force one of these down your throat every six hours.” If you ever come to regard your meditation teacher as the pharmacist, the meditation practice as the pill, and your sense of discipline as the one force-feeding the medicine, you will soon find yourself up against the obstacle of forgetting.
Having a folksy attitude towards your practice cuts through the sense that practice is being forced on you. My teacher used to have little slogans that he gave students to remind them to take this attitude, such as “No big deal” and “Couldn’t care less.” It was a reminder not to take the whole thing too seriously in the wrong way, but instead allowing it to become a simple, ordinary expression of your life like brushing your teeth or eating breakfast.
Take the view that your practice is like a good friend you invite over to your home without thinking about it. It’s such an ordinary gathering that you don’t even have to get your calendars out to plan it.
Antidotes to Drowsiness and Wildness
The sixth antidote is for two obstacles: drowsiness and wildness. It is called the light-handed warning system. This is nothing other than the sheshin awareness described in the spy and sheriff analogies in Chapter 16.
The basic point here is, first, to recognize that the obstacle is approaching before it overwhelms you; and second, to use the energy of the obstacle itself to wake you up, which you accomplish by not fighting with the obstacle while you’re sitting on the cushion.
For example, when you experience drowsiness, the harder you struggle with it, the sleepier you become. Your panic about not falling into a pit of fatigue and keeling over on your cushion becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It invites the very outcome you’re struggling so hard to avoid. You fall asleep and then jerk awake, over and over again.
The deeper issue here is that we all have a conceptual ideal of the meditative experience that we aspire to have, and regard any experience that doesn’t measure up to it as a mistake or a failure. We would always like what we imagine would be a better nowness than the one we’re having. As a result, we are caught in the hope and fear that arises in this gap between what we want and what we have. In this sense, what we experience in meditation is a mirror for the way we approach all of our life experiences off the cushion.
The only way to untie this knot is to relax with the experience you’re having. Therefore the meaning of “light-handed warning system” here is that when dullness and drowsiness approach, you recognize their presence as another opportunity to be gentle with yourself.
I recall one particular session of group meditation that took place during a month-long intensive. We had been sitting for many hours and several of us were fighting to stay awake. Our heads were bobbing like buoys on our shoulders. Then a very large man sitting directly across from me suddenly toppled over to the floor—like a falling tree. The woman sitting next to him screamed, and everyone abruptly woke up and stayed wide-awake for the rest of the session. Because you can’t always rely on this kind of help from the external world, when you’re dealing with drowsiness, the key is to not resist it. Go along with the feelings of drowsiness and tune into them as a way of staying present.
Many people regard falling asleep on the cushion as a personal failure and so try to force themselves to stay awake. Instead, let yourself nod off and then wake up. It happens quickly and you can watch the sensations, feelings, and even flashes of dreams come and go. In other words, simply transfer your mindfulness to the experience of falling asleep.
The antidote to wildness is the same in the sense that you do not struggle with its energy while it’s happening, out of your wish or your anxiety that you should be having a different kind of experience. The light-handed warning system here is connected with recognizing the approach of wildness in the symptoms your body and mind begin to experience—such as mental speed, agitation, vivid fantasy, and a general sense of being unmoored from the ground like a rising hot-air balloon.
Recall again the image of the spy in the awareness practice of sheshin. You become more sensitive to all the symptoms of the obstacle, then allow it to come along without forcibly trying to change its energy. This brings a deeper understanding of the meaning of “peaceful abiding,” because the energy of wildness seems anything but peaceful. You let it play itself out rather than struggling to subdue it. In my own experience, putting slightly more emphasis on the feeling of the posture and on the felt experience of the full movement of the breath can also be helpful. It seems to be yet another way of finding the balance of “not too tight, not too loose.”
In traditional Tibetan teachings on shamatha, there are very literal antidotes that are used for drowsiness and wildness, several of which were discussed in Chapter 16. For example, if you’re drowsy you can face a bright white surface when you meditate, because the brightness will naturally perk up your mind. If you don’t have a white surface available, then you could visualize a white dot or sphere in front of you and slightly above the level of your head.
On the other hand, if your mind is wild, you can use black instead because it sobers the mind and brings it down and grounds it more. In the case of a black dot or sphere, you would visualize it closer to the level of the ground.So in both cases there is an appreciation that these are energetic states, and we are learning how to respect and become more sensitive to them. In other words, it can awaken your intelligence, so that you become more curious and look more deeply at the habitual patterns that are fueling these extremes of energy that are so recurrently present in your mind and body.
Antidote to Carelessness
The seventh antidote is for carelessness, which is described as intense awareness. Sometimes it’s called “returning to mindfulness.” Carelessness arises from an underlying sense that you are powerless over your own life experience. Because you feel powerless, you don’t bother— which results in sloppiness. Through intense awareness you take matters into your own hands. You resolve to work with it. Rather than feeling that your mind is stupid and unworkable, you take the attitude that you can shape it and that meditation is the means to do so. You can shape your mind towards natural discipline, towards wakefulness.
The idea here is to remember that your mind is workable, and that you can shape your mind with confidence, as if you were a sculptor working with clay. You can actually do it. This attitude of workability empowers you. When you bring loving-kindness to this process, rather than using intense awareness as a further way to beat yourself up, you develop patience and gentleness.
The traditional analogy is to imagine yourself as your own child, and to try and think how soft your approach is when you teach a child something new. A child needs that kind of attention in order to learn, so you don’t give up and you offer lots of encouragement along the way.
A careless attitude results from feeling powerless because your self-criticism tells you that you’re an unworkable person. In response, you can become your own mother or father in the best sense. It is as if the kind, steady adult within you provides the uncertain child within you the patient support and encouragement it needs to begin standing on its own.
Antidote to Lack of Coordination
The eighth and last antidote is called balance or equilibrium. This antidote is for the obstacle of not being able to co-ordinate the whole thing. This coordination is connected with the balance between attending to the little details of your life, while at the same time having an overall sense of the environment in which they occur. If you’re too focused on details, you lose the bigger picture; but if you’re too enamored of the big picture, you tend to “space out” and ignore the details.
When my teacher described this antidote, he pointed out that this sense of balance applied both to shamatha practice and to your daily life. Essentially, he was talking about the proper balance between mindfulness and awareness. Once again, we are using the faculty of sheshin—the spy who gives the general of mindfulness useful intelligence about the troop strength of the “enemy”—the enemy in this case being all the distractions that keep us from achieving the proper balance between our meditation practice and our other daily activities.
Cheer Up, Ladies and Gentlemen
Generally speaking, the obstacles to shamatha practice are the result of being too hard on ourselves. Each antidote tells us to cheer up, realize we can synchronize our good intention with our discipline, and see that meditation is a very natural and ordinary thing to do.
When Chogyam Trungpa taught about Shambhala warriorship, he would sometimes use a golden fan to illustrate the brilliant quality of our awareness when it comes out from behind the clouds of these temporary obstacles. He called this awareness the Great Eastern Sun, because it is always ready to dawn in our experience if we simply turn and face in the right direction.
“Cheer up, ladies and gentlemen!” he would playfully exclaim as he smiled broadly and opened the golden fan fully, holding it up for all of us to see. In that moment, it was impossible not to cheer up!
In the poem, “Shoveling Snow with Buddha,” Billy Collins playfully expresses the two themes of synchronizing your mind and body, and taking a cheerful attitude toward your practice.
In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over the mountain of his bare round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot, a model of concentration.
Sitting is more his speed—
if that is the word for what he does or does not do.
Even the season is wrong for him—
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?
But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain bursts of snow.
This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.
He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.
All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside the generous pocket of his silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.
After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?
Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck
and our boots stand dripping by the door.
Aaah, says the Buddha,
lifting his eyes and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner