Are you well? Please stop and think about this from time to time; it's important. In any case, I certainly hope you have been (and continue to be).
Sorry for not writing for a few weeks, I have been experiencing classic writer's block. I just can't seem to get the words out. I actually have a few unfinished letters, that I just don't feel are good enough to send out.
This will be my last letter to you for a while. I have organised to go on a meditation retreat that I will be leaving for in a few days. I will be staying in a forest monastery where I will be basically living like a monk for the next month.
The purpose of going on this retreat will be to interrupt all of my usual thought and habit patterns, and meditate on the nature of mind. To gain a deeper understanding of what this mind is, underneath all of the inputs of day-to-day life.
I want to know what this thing called mind is. I want to know what this thing called experience is. I want to know what this thing called life is.
What is this circumstance we are in?
Why is it like anything at all? It's all so strange and bizarre to me!
How we ever sink into a sense of normalcy is beyond me!
Why do these phenomena, these sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts and emotions continually arise moment-to-moment? What is this even?!
While I am still alive and breathing, while I still have this body and mind, these arms, legs, heart and head, while I can still clearly experience this rich and vivid world I want to learn more about all of this.
All about this beautiful circumstance we call experience. This seemingly never-ending show called life. This capacity to perceive we call mind.
In the absence of people, projects and activities to think about, where will the mind go? What will arise in this mind of mine?
In my previous experiences on retreat I have found two things seem to come to the mind, in the absence of stimuli — that is; things to think about:
Memories: I remember people I haven't thought about in over a decade, fond memories from primary school and even earlier come flooding into my mind, I dwell in a pleasant world of the past. It feels almost as if I am recovering lost memories from a past life. These are not fuzzy thoughts but crystal clear, vivid appearances in my consciousness. I have gained the intuition that it's possible that in the course of a human life, there really is no experience lost completely. That it's all still there and it can be recovered and accessed in any moment. Obviously I am deeply unsure here, and am simply hazarding a guess.
Insights: It feels like a lot of the things I had been working on and thinking about stew in my mind, and new ideas emerge. Did you know after my first one-month solitary retreat shortly after I started up these very letters? I remember being in a state of mind where it felt like I was having many epiphanies a second, at the very least, it was a pleasurable experience. I thought through many of what were the deepest philosophical problems at the time, and the uncanny thing is that it felt like my mind was doing this all on its own. In the absence of adding new stimuli, it processes what is lingering in the mind. Creative, rational, and emotional processing all seem to happen on their own, which all leave one feeling lighter and better off. It's is a bit like the feeling you get when checking off an item from your bucket list to the nth degree. Also, the mind can get quite funny in intense solitude — all sorts of jokes started flooding my mind in the midst of intense retreat. The walls separating concepts in my mind collapsed, everything mixed together in a stew that tasted most amusing.
(Once again, I am interpreting my experiences and am probably not remembering them to perfect precision. I do not know why what happens happens. This is all conjecture)
Ironically, there is a point of view, that despite how seemingly useful and novel all of these experiences and insights are — they are in fact a distraction. All of these things happened when I was lost in thought. I was failing to meditate. Indeed, the practice of meditation entails noticing whenever any of this is happening and letting it go, returning to the present.
At the beginning distractions are simple, "I'm hungry", "I wonder what X is doing", "Is that snake still there?", "how much time has passed". But as you go deeper into practice, the mundane ceases to be a distraction, you become absorbed in the practice and learn to be aware of and let go of such thoughts as they arise. It is like when the thoughts realise you won't react to them nagging you, they learn to leave you alone.
When you let go of all these more superficial distractions, the kinds of phenomena I've described start to occur. Fond memories from way-back-when that you were afraid had been lost forever, insights into life, the mind and the nature of reality that you thought you were seeking — are these just shinier, more elaborate distractions?!
Blissful experiences are not the prize for a yogi. They can be a potent trap. It is all too tempting to believe "this is it" and it is all too tempting to try to cling to them, to hold onto them, to make them last longer. But the yogi isn't trying to have pleasant experiences — this isn't a drug — the real aim here is to understand the mind. All experiences are to be learned from and then let go. That which is common to all experience is that which we recognise.
No matter what it is we are experiencing, no matter what it is that appears, we can ask ourselves who is experiencing? What does it appear to? Who or what exactly is it that is aware of all the phenomena?
If life were a movie, this would be like recognising the screen.
Pure awareness. Child Mind. Natural Mind. The innate mind of clear light. Emptiness. The Buddha. Enlightenment.
These are all different names for that which is said to be the goal of this enterprise.
In the much-beloved classic text The Flight of the Garuda, there are even more:
"In the vernacular it is "I"; some Hindus call it the "Self"; the sravaka disciples say "selfless individuals"; the followers of Mind-only call it simply "mind,; some call it "perfect insight"; some call it "buddha-nature"; some call it the "magnificent stance" some call it the "Middle Way"; some call it the "Cosmic Seed"; some call it the "reality-contnuum"; some call it the "universal ground"; some call it "ordinary consciousness."
Some call it ordinary consciousness...
What will I be doing in the next month?
Well, the Tibetan word for meditation is sgom which means to familiarise with, or to become accustomed to. I will be growing used to with this mind of mine.
But when I say mind, I do not simply mean my neurotic, chattering thoughts, but whatever appears in experience.
"One of the earliest lessons I was taught by my father was that Buddhists don't see the mind as a discrete entity, but rather as a perpetually unfolding experience."
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
Whatever you are experiencing is it. That which is experiences, and the mind that experiences it are one and the same. This is it.
"The key — the how of Buddhist practice — lies in learning to simply rest in a bare awareness of thoughts, feelings and perceptions as they occur."
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, more information
If you have been enjoying my letters during these COVID-19 times, I beyond thank you for your interest and support. A few years ago, I am not sure I would have dreamed I would be spending my life like this.
I am truly fortunate to be able to say things like this and have others who will listen.
I know I say this at the end of almost every letter, but I really mean it.
Let me leave you with one more quote from Rinpoche, you know, for the road.
"If you take the opportunity to rest awhile along the journey, eventually you'll realise the place you want to reach is the place you already are."
Yonger Mingyur Rinpoche, more information
I will be returning in the middle of October, and I am looking forward to writing to you again.
Take care everyone,