Three Conscious Breaths
– Pema Chdren
One of my favorite subjects of contemplation is this question: “Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” You know you will die, but you really don’t know how long you have to wake up from the cocoon of your habitual patterns. You don’t know how much time you have left to fulfill the potential of your precious human birth. Given this, what is the most important thing?
Every day of your life, every morning of your life, you could ask yourself, “As I go into this day, what is the most important thing? What is the best use of this day?” Awakened mind exists in our surroundings, but how often are we actually touching in with it?
What is the best use of each day of our lives? In one very short day, each of us would become more sane, more compassionate, more tender, more in touch with the dream-like quality of reality. Or we could bury all these qualities in habitual mind. Every time a habitual pattern gets strong, every time we feel caught up or on automatic pilot, we could see it as an opportunity to burn up negative karma. Rather than as a problem, we could see it as our karma ripening, which gives us an opportunity to burn up karma, or at least weaken our karmic propensities. But that’s hard to do. When we realize that we are hooked, that we’re on automatic pilot, what do we do next? That is a central question for the practitioner.
One of the most effective means for working with that moment when we see the gathering storm of our habitual tendencies is the practice of pausing, or creating a gap. We can stop and take three conscious breaths and the world has a chance to open up to us in that gap. We can allow space into our state of mind.
Before I talk more about consciously pausing or creating a gap, it might be helpful to appreciate the gap that already exists in our environment. Awakened mind exists in our surroundings — in the air and the wind, in the sea, in the land, in the animals — but how often are we actually touching in with it? Are we poking our heads out of our cocoons long enough to actually taste it, experience it, let it shift something in us, let it penetrate our conventional way of looking at things?
If you take some time to formally practice meditation, perhaps in the early morning, there is a lot of silence and space. Meditation practice itself is a way to create gaps. Every time you realize you are thinking and you let your thoughts go, you are creating a gap. Every time the breath goes out, you are creating a gap. You may not always experience it that way, but the basic meditation instruction is designed to be full of gaps. If you don’t fill up your practice time with your discursive mind, with your worrying and obsessing and all that kind of thing, you have time to experience the blessing of your surroundings. You can just sit there quietly. Then maybe silence will dawn on you, and the sacredness of the space will penetrate.
Whatever it is you are doing, the magic, the sacredness, the expansiveness, the stillness, stays with you.
Or maybe not. Maybe you are already caught up in the work you have to do that day, the projects you haven’t finished from the day before. Maybe you worry about something that has to be done, or hasn’t been done, or a letter that you just received. Maybe you are caught up in busy mind, caught up in hesitation or fear, depression or discouragement. In other words, you’ve gone into your cocoon of habitual patterns.
For all of us, the experience of our entanglement differs from day to day. Nevertheless, if you connect with the blessings of your surroundings — the stillness, the magic, and the power — maybe that feeling can stay with you and you can go into your day with it. Whatever it is you are doing, the magic, the sacredness, the expansiveness, the stillness, stays with you. When you are in touch with that larger environment, it can cut through your cocoon mentality.
On the other hand, I know from personal experience how strong the habitual mind is. The discursive mind, the busy, worried, caught-up, spaced-out mind, is powerful. That’s all the more reason to do the most important thing — to realize what a strong opportunity every day is, and how easy it is to waste it. If you don’t allow your mind to open and to connect with where you are, with the immediacy of your experience, you could easily become completely submerged. You could be completely caught up and distracted by the details of your life, from the moment you get up in the morning until you fall asleep at night.
One can get so caught up in the content of your life, the minutiae that make up a day, so self-absorbed in the big project you have to do, that the blessings, the magic, the stillness, and the vastness escape you.
The great fourteenth-century Tibetan teacher Longchenpa talked about our useless and meaningless focus on the details, getting so caught up we don’t see what is in front of our nose. He said that this useless focus extends moment by moment into a continuum, and days, months, and even whole lives go by. Do you spend your whole time just thinking about things, distracting yourself with your own mind, completely lost in thought? I know this habit so well myself. It is the human predicament.
“Yes, but…,” we say. Yes, but I have a job to do, there is a deadline, there is an endless amount of e-mail I have to deal with, I have cooking and cleaning and errands. How are we supposed to juggle all that we have to do in a day, in a week, in a month, without missing our precious opportunity to experience who we really are? Not only do we have a precious human life, but that precious human life is made up of precious human days, and those precious human days are made up of precious human moments. How we spend them is really important. Yes, we do have jobs to do; we don’t just sit around meditating all day, even at a retreat center. We have the real nitty-gritty of relationships — how we live together, how we rub up against each other. Going off by ourselves, getting away from the people we think are distracting us, won’t solve everything. Part of our karma, part of our dilemma, is learning to work with the feelings that relationships bring up. They provide opportunities to do the most important thing too.
As I said, our habits are strong, so a certain discipline is required to step outside our cocoon and receive the magic of our surroundings. The pause practice — the practice of taking three conscious breaths at any moment when we notice that we are stuck — is a simple but powerful practice that each of us can do at any given moment.
Just pause. Let it be a contrast to being all caught up. Let it be like popping a bubble.
Pause practice can transform each day of your life. It creates an open doorway to the sacredness of the place in which you find yourself. The vastness, stillness, and magic of the place will dawn upon you, if you let your mind relax and drop for just a few breaths the storyline you are working so hard to maintain. If you pause just long enough, you can reconnect with exactly where you are, with the immediacy of your experience.
You are on your way to whatever you need to do for the day. Maybe you are in your car, or on the bus, or standing in line. But you can still create that gap by taking three conscious breaths and being right there with the immediacy of your experience, right there with whatever you are seeing, with whatever you are doing, with whatever you are feeling.
Another powerful way to do pause practice is simply to listen for a moment. Instead of sight being the predominant sense perception, let sound, hearing, be the predominant sense perception. It’s a very powerful way to cut through our conventional way of looking at the world. In any moment, you can just stop and listen intently. It doesn’t matter what particular sound you hear; you simply create a gap by listening intently.
In any moment you could just listen. In any moment, you could put your full attention on the immediacy of your experience. You could look at your hand resting on your leg, or feel your bottom sitting on the cushion or on the chair. You could just be here. Instead of being not here, instead of being absorbed in thinking, planning, and worrying, instead of being caught up in the cocoon, cut off from your sense perceptions, cut off from the power and magic of the moment, you could be here. When you go out for a walk, pause frequently — stop and listen. Stop and take three conscious breaths. How precisely you create the gap doesn’t really matter. Just find a way to punctuate your life with these thought-free moments. They don’t have to be thought-free minutes even, they can be no more than one breath, one second. Punctuate, create gaps. As soon as you do, you realize how big the sky is, how big your mind is.
When you are completely wound up about something and you pause, your natural intelligence clicks in and you have a sense of the right thing to do. This is part of the magic: our own natural intelligence is always there to inform us, as long as we allow a gap.
Pause, connect with the immediacy of your experience, connect with the blessings; liberate yourself from the cocoon of self-involvement, talking to yourself all of the time, completely obsessing. Allow a gap, gap, gap. Just do it over and over and over; allow yourself the space to realize where you are. Realize how big your mind is; realize how big the space is, that it has never gone away, but that you have been ignoring it.
Find a way to slow down. Find a way to relax. Find a way to relax your mind and do it often, very, very often, throughout the day continuously, not just when you are hooked but all the time. At its root, being caught up in discursive thought, continually self-involved with discursive plans, worries, and so forth, is attachment to ourselves. It is the surface manifestation of ego-clinging.
Allow yourself the space to connect with the blessing of the sacred world.
…mind the gap with three conscious breaths.
What Green Tara Can Teach Us About Fear
– Marcela Clavijo
Marcela Clavijo (Ven. Ngawang Samten Drolma) began dharma study with Khenpo Pema Wandak in 1995. Five years later, she encountered her root guru, the 41st Sakya Trizin, and in 2003, she received novice ordination in Nepal. She lives in New York City.
Fear can be a paralyzing experience. It robs us of peace of mind and our sense of self-control, and it blocks our ability to achieve the positive things we set out to do. It is a disturbing, negative emotion, especially when caused by confusion about what can actually harm us and what it means to be safe. But fear is something we can aspire to understand and eliminate from our lives.
Tibetan Buddhism offers many methods for recognizing, overcoming, and ending disturbing emotions, including fear. Some are grounded in awareness of the body. Green Tara, who represents the aspect of a buddha that protects us from fear, also represents the energy winds of the body and breath. Tara’s influence is the capacity to act, to move through life, and accomplish our aims. Indeed, her name means “she who ferries across.”
Understanding the subtleties of energy winds and how they influence us helps us, in turn, to understand our experience. Energy winds affect our body, emotions, and the types of thoughts that circulate in our minds, and they give momentum to all sorts of habits of acting, speaking, and thinking. To get a sense of this dynamic is to understand how we can positively shape our experience.
For centuries, meditation masters have used techniques to direct and regulate those energies. And while some of these techniques may seem esoteric, they are based on a very straightforward premise: if you can feel your body, you are feeling energy.
The goal of the practices offered here is to create positive, constructive energy feelings in the body. They can be practiced by anyone experiencing fear, panic, anxiety, agitation, or worry. And they can be very helpful in calming us down during moments of crisis. They relax physical tension, soothe the nerves, and calm the mind when we are extremely frightened or worried, or when we begin to panic. Tara represents the air or wind element and as such she is associated with moving through obstacles; so when we apply these breathing practices, we begin to feel revitalized, our mental energy becomes clearer, and we’re able to overcome anxiety.
Depending on the circumstances, you may use one or all five steps in the following order:
1. Sitting or lying down in a comfortable position, with eyes closed, gently breathe in and out, counting your breaths, with one inhalation and exhalation counted as one breath. Focus on the bodily sensations of breathing—the breath entering the body, the abdomen expanding and then gently drawing in as the breath leaves the body.
This is key: most of us pull the abdomen in as we inhale and relax it as we exhale. But breathing that way compresses the body, creating tremendous physical pressure and emotional and mental confusion. Making this simple correction, so that we expand the abdomen on inhalation and allow it to gently collapse on exhalation, can work wonders on our emotional state. After you feel a little more settled, gradually return to activity, or continue to the next step.
2. With eyes half-open, loosely focused, and looking toward the ground, continue to count the breaths— this time with one exhalation, the pause at its end, and one inhalation counting as one breath. After a few cycles, focus on the sensation of sitting; feel the surface you are resting on, and the body touching that surface. When you begin to feel more stable and grounded, return to activity, or continue to the next step.
3. As you become aware of the circumstances—the story line—giving rise to your fear, notice that you may be feeling more tranquil. This is a good time to reaffirm your motivation or goal. Bring to mind your heart’s deepest desire. For example, if this were the last day of your life, how would you like others to remember you, and why? Become aware of these aspirations, while simultaneously maintaining awareness of the breath and the calming of your mind. Once you have become more tranquil and attuned to your aspirations, return to activity, or continue on to the next step.
4. Now look at your mind. This is actually very easy to do when you know how. Without forming words in your mind, see whether your mind is calm or agitated. Is it focused or scattered? Is it lethargic or wakeful? Notice that your mind comes into focus, like an object seen through the lens of a camera. Look directly into your mind like this for a brief moment, and then release the focus and relax. As clarity and a sense of ease develop, return to activity, or continue to the last step.
5. Finally, no longer counting breaths, sense your body breathing itself. Notice the flow of air and the gentle rise and fall of the body with each breath. Feel the breath as alive, as flowing energy and sensation throughout your entire body, and sense how all the energies of the body are moving smoothly and harmoniously.
These breath practices recharge our subtle body and release stuck energy and the smooth, dynamic flow that arises from within. This freedom from the grip of fear and stress is the lived experience of Tara. Our minds are complex and profound, and so are our problems. On a deep level— more subtle even than the body and breath—fear is often accompanied by confusion about some aspect of reality: we cling to the notion of an internal, independent “me” that should be able to control things, and an external, independent “other thing” that we should be able to control.
From the Buddhist perspective, both of these views lack inherent existence, as do our emotions. In fact, the basis of the techniques offered here is the truth of dependent arising and the absence of true existence. This is why our practice can temporarily subdue and permanently eradicate all negative emotions.
Life presents us with a constant stream of circumstances that threaten to cause anxiety, fear, even panic, so we cannot afford to wait: these techniques can be applied on the spot. As we practice, Green Tara makes her way into our hearts, protecting us as we befriend ourselves and learn to send positive energy through our bodies, as we move along with a calm mind, free from fear.
The Metta Sutta | Loving Kindness Chant
– The Buddha
(The Buddha gives this sutta, as an antidote, to a group of monks who are in fear.)
This is what should be accomplished by the one who is wise, who seeks the good and has obtained peace. Let one be strenuous, upright and sincere, without pride, easily contented and joyous. Let one not be submerged by the things of the world. Let one not take upon oneself the burden of riches.
Let one’s senses be controlled. Let one be wise but not puffed up, and let one not desire great possessions, even for one’s family. Let one do nothing that is mean or that the wise would reprove.
May all beings be happy. May they be joyous and live in safety. All living beings, whether weak or strong, in high or middle or low realms of existence, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far, born or to be born, may all beings be happy. Let no one deceive another, nor despise any being in any state; let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another.
Even as a mother, at the risk of her own life, watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things, suffusing love over the entire world — above, below, and all around without limit.
So let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world. Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, during all one’s waking hours, let one practice the way with gratitude. Not holding to fixed views, abandoning vague discussions, endowed with insight, freed from sense appetites, one who achieves the way will be freed from the duality of birth and death, and no longer create suffering for oneself or others.
Bhāra Sutta: The Burden
Pali CanonSN 22.22 PTS: S iii 25
Translation: K. Nizamis
At Sāvatthī… There the Blessed One said this:
“I will teach you, the burden, the bearer of the burden, the taking up of the burden and the putting down of the burden. Hear this.
“And whatt is the burden? That of which it should be said: the five clung-to aggregates. “Which five?
1.The form clung-to aggregate,
2. the feeling clung-to aggregate,
3. the perception clung-to aggregate,
4. the formative mental functions clung-to aggregate,
5. the sensory consciousness clung-to aggregate. This, monks, is called the burden.
And what is the burden-bearer? It is the individual person, who is this venerable one, of such a name, of such ancestry. This, monks, is called the burden-bearer.
“And what is the taking up of the burden? That which is this craving leading to rebirth, connected with delight and passion, finding delight here and there: namely,
– craving for sensual pleasure,
– craving for being,
– and craving for extinction.
This is called the taking up of the burden.
“And what is the putting down of the burden? That is this – release of craving,
– it is cessation by means of the absence of desire without remainder:
– the abandoning, the forsaking, the freedom, the non-attachment.
That is called the putting down of the burden.”
This said the Blessed One. Having said this, the Fortunate One, the Teacher, furthermore said this:
Ah, surely, the five aggregates are burdens,
And the individual person is the burden-bearer;
Taking up the burden is suffering in the world,
Putting down the burden is bliss.
Having put down the heavy burden,
Without taking up another burden,
Pulling out craving along with its root,
One is without hunger, fully extinguished.
Cetana Sutta An Act of Will
Pali Canon AN 11.2 PTS: A v 312
Translation: Thanissaro Bhikkhu
“For a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May freedom from remorse arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that freedom from remorse arises in a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue.
“For a person free from remorse, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May joy arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that joy arises in a person free from remorse.
“For a joyful person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May rapture arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that rapture arises in a joyful person.
“For a rapturous person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my body be serene.’ It is in the nature of things that a rapturous person grows serene in body.
“For a person serene in body, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I experience pleasure.’ It is in the nature of things that a person serene in body experiences pleasure.
“For a person experiencing pleasure, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my mind grow concentrated.’ It is in the nature of things that the mind of a person experiencing pleasure grows concentrated.
“For a person whose mind is concentrated, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I know & see things as they actually are.’ It is in the nature of things that a person whose mind is concentrated knows & sees things as they actually are.
“For a person who knows & sees things as they actually are, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I feel disenchantment.’ It is in the nature of things that a person who knows & sees things as they actually are feels disenchantment.
“For a person who feels disenchantment, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I grow dispassionate.’ It is in the nature of things that a person who feels disenchantment grows dispassionate.
“For a dispassionate person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I realize the knowledge & vision of release.’ It is in the nature of things that a dispassionate person realizes the knowledge & vision of release.
“In this way,
– Dispassion has knowledge & vision of release as its purpose, knowledge & vision of release as its reward.
– Disenchantment has dispassion as its purpose, dispassion as its reward.
– Knowledge & vision of things as they actually are has disenchantment as its purpose, disenchantment as its reward.
– Concentration has knowledge & vision of things as they actually are as its purpose, knowledge & vision of things as they actually are as its reward.
– Pleasure has concentration as its purpose, concentration as its reward.
– Serenity has pleasure as its purpose, pleasure as its reward.
– Rapture has serenity as its purpose, serenity as its reward. Joy has rapture as its purpose, rapture as its reward.
– Freedom from remorse has joy as its purpose, joy as its reward. Skillful virtues have freedom from remorse as their purpose, freedom from remorse as their reward.
“In this way, mental qualities lead on to mental qualities, mental qualities bring mental qualities to their consummation, for the sake of going from the near to the Further Shore.”
Anana Sutta: Debtless
AN 4.62 PTS: A ii 69
translation: Thanissaro Bhikkhu
“And what is the bliss of [making use of] wealth? There is the case where the son of a good family, using the wealth earned through his efforts & enterprise, amassed through the strength of his arm, and piled up through the sweat of his brow, righteous wealth righteously gained, partakes of his wealth and makes merit. When he thinks, ‘Using the wealth earned through my efforts & enterprise, amassed through the strength of my arm, and piled up through the sweat of my brow, righteous wealth righteously gained, I partake of wealth and make merit,’ he experiences bliss, he experiences joy. This is called the bliss of [making use of] wealth.
“And what is the bliss of debtlessness? There is the case where the son of a good family owes no debt, great or small, to anyone at all. When he thinks, ‘I owe no debt, great or small, to anyone at all,’ he experiences bliss, he experiences joy. This is called the bliss of debtlessness.
“And what is the bliss of blamelessness? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones is endowed with blameless bodily kamma, blameless verbal kamma, blameless mental kamma. When he thinks, ‘I am endowed with blameless bodily kamma, blameless verbal kamma, blameless mental kamma,’ he experiences bliss, he experiences joy. This is called the bliss of blamelessness.
“These are the four kinds of bliss that can be attained in the proper season, on the proper occasions, by a householder partaking of sensuality.”
Knowing the bliss of debtlessness,
& recollecting the bliss of having,
enjoying the bliss of wealth, the mortal
then sees clearly with discernment.
Seeing clearly — the wise one —
he knows both sides:
that these are not worth one sixteenth-sixteenth
of the bliss of blamelessness.
Refrain from taking the life of any being
Refrain from taking what is not freely given
Refrain from inappropriate sexual conduct
Refrain from lying
Refrain from divisive speech
Refrain from using harsh words
Refrain from idle talk (gossip)
Refrain from coveting other’s possessions
and positions (greed)
Refrain from resenting the good fortune of others
Refrain from holding a closed mind about things
one doesn’t fully understand (ignorance/delusion)
Intentional Action [kamma (Skt: karma)]
Pali Canon Pali Canon — MN 61
Reflecting on one’s actions
(The Buddha teaches his young son)
[The Buddha:] “What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?”
[Rahula:] “For reflection, sir.”
[The Buddha:] “In the same way, Rahula, bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts are to be done with repeated reflection.
“Whenever you want to perform a bodily act, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily act I want to perform — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily act with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily act of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful bodily action with happy consequences, happy results, then any bodily act of that sort is fit for you to do.
“While you are performing a bodily act, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily act I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it is leading to self-affliction, to affliction of others, or both… you should give it up. But if on reflection you know that it is not… you may continue with it.
“Having performed a bodily act, you should reflect on it… If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful bodily act with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction… it was a skillful bodily action with happy consequences, happy results, then you should stay mentally refreshed and joyful, training day and night in skillful mental qualities.
…[similarly for verbal and mental acts]…
“Rahula, all the brahmans and contemplatives in the course of the past who purified their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts, did it through repeated reflection on their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts in just this way.
“All the brahmans and contemplatives in the course of the future… All the brahmans and contemplatives at present who purify their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts, do it through repeated reflection on their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts in just this way.
“Therefore, Rahula, you should train yourself: ‘I will purify my bodily acts through repeated reflection. I will purify my verbal acts through repeated reflection. I will purify my mental acts through repeated reflection.’ Thus you should train yourself.”
Five pleasant things to be gained by acting skillfully
Pali Canon — AN 5.43
“These five things are welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to obtain in the world. Which five? Long life… beauty… pleasure… status… rebirth in heaven… Now, I tell you, these five things are not to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes. If they were to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes, who here would lack them? It’s not fitting for those who desires long life to pray for it or to delight in doing so. Instead, one who desires long life should follow the path of practice leading to long life (actions). In so doing, one will attain long life, either human or divine…(Same instruction for beauty, pleasure, status, and rebirth in heaven).
The most noble kamma of all: the ending of kamma
Pali Canon — AN 4.235
“These four types of kamma have been directly realized, verified, & made known by me. Which four? There is kamma that is dark with dark result. There is kamma that is bright with bright result. There is kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result. There is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.
“And what is kamma that is dark with dark result? There is the case where a certain person fabricates an injurious bodily fabrication, fabricates an injurious verbal fabrication, fabricates an injurious mental fabrication. Having fabricated an injurious bodily fabrication, having fabricated an injurious verbal fabrication, having fabricated an injurious mental fabrication, he rearises in an injurious world. On rearising in an injurious world, he is there touched by injurious contacts. Touched by injurious contacts, he experiences feelings that are exclusively painful, like those of the beings in hell. This is called kamma that is dark with dark result.
“And what is kamma that is bright with bright result? There is the case where a certain person fabricates a non-injurious bodily fabrication… a non-injurious verbal fabrication… a non-injurious mental fabrication… He rearises in a non-injurious world… There he is touched by non-injurious contacts… He experiences feelings that are exclusively pleasant, like those of the Ever-radiant Devas. This is called kamma that is bright with bright result.
“And what is kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result? There is the case where a certain person fabricates a bodily fabrication that is injurious & non-injurious… a verbal fabrication that is injurious & non-injurious… a mental fabrication that is injurious & non-injurious… He rearises in an injurious & non-injurious world… There he is touched by injurious & non-injurious contacts… He experiences injurious & non-injurious feelings, pleasure mingled with pain, like those of human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms. This is called kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result.
“And what is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma? right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is called kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.”