What does it mean to be doing well? There are two answers resonate with me here. One is when you feel like you are making steady progress on accomplishing your goals, and the other is when you are entirely carefree. The latter of the two tens to be when you have just finished a big project and finally give yourself permission to float free without any objectives — most of us do not allow ourselves to stay here long, we quickly find a new goal to pursue.
Happiness is always available in between and behind the story of our lives. It is quite accessible.
In this letter, I want to talk to you a little about connecting with this.
In any case, I hope you are doing well.
How to cut through suffering in an instant
“Think carefully about pain and suffering and ask yourself who or what it is that is suffering.”
Look for who it is that is suffering. That’s all.
Some understand this immediately. They look for the one that is suffering, fail to find them, and the relief is instant. It is clear to them, that this relief is available at any moment.
Many are mystified at this instruction. Why am I doing what now?
It is these people that are likely to feel stuck when meditating, to fail to understand the rationale behind meditation and to not feel like they are progressing.
First, make no mistake; it is not like you are supposed to find anything.
“Not finding is the finding.”
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
So you are suffering right now? What does it mean? Where is this thing you believe exists that you are calling suffering? Is it in the head? Is it in the heart? How does it feel? Is it hot, or is it cold? Is it fuzzy, or is it sharp? Why is it a problem? What is it about it that warrants the name “suffering”?
Who or what is it that you are calling “you” that this “suffering” adversely affects?
There is no need for a long search here; this can be realised in an instant.
You assume you are suffering. You assume there is someone there that is suffering. This assumption can be dissolved simply by looking closely. Your suffering is nothing but an unwarranted assumption. It can be dissolved easily.
Turning attention on itself, paying attention to what is and seeing it as it is, is the way.
“Samsara is like making a mistake, and nirvana is like when you stop making it.”
Meditation from here on out is recognising when you make this mistake and letting go of it. Progress is obvious in the half-life of your own suffering. Rather than returning to the breath, sensations or an object, it is the recognition of who you really are—this unceasing flow of 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.”
There is simply this flow of experience. There isn’t a self at the centre, “experiencing” it. There isn’t an individual separate to what is spontaneously arising moment-to-moment that can be harmed by any part of it.
Can you see through this continually unfolding experience that is the mind?
The problem is that it is too easy
This really works. If you understand these words, in an instant, the suffering is gone. Look for the sufferer, and both it and the suffering dissolve and what is left is this luminous, ordinary mind. It is simply this.
Meditation need not involve anything apart from resting in this realisation. When out of habit, one notices oneself straying into identifying with thought — straining and suffering — one gently needs to notice and let go. The skill of meditation is being able to see the knots of suffering as they arise and untie them. To let go of clinging thoughts as they appear. It is from this space called “the mind” that the thoughts of “I” and “suffering” arose, and it is back to this space that they will dissolve.
There is no limit to how far this can stretch — it works with all kinds of suffering: Negative emotions, physical pain, cold, hunger and even sleepiness. An experienced yogi who sits still for hours on end perfectly still is not exerting force of will nor are they using discipline, they simply know the technique.
Three stages in meditation
The Indian Dzogchen Master Vimalamitra outlined three stages of practice.
- It is like recognising the familiar face of a friend
- It is like a snake that has tied itself into a knot
- It is like thieves entering an empty house
Underneath all of the neurosis, all the stories we tell ourselves, the concepts of you, me, good, bad, pleasure, pain is the naked, ordinary mind. Pure awareness, which is inseparable from whatever is being experienced. It can be seen that there is no one who is suffering, no one who is experiencing, that there is only this. The first stage is recognising this emptiness — your true nature — much like the face of an old friend. This is it.
The pointing-out instruction in Dzogchen is called Trekcho. This means “cutting the string”, when a string is cut the two ends fall away. It is obvious. There is no doubt that the string has become cut. When a student receives this instruction from a qualified teacher, they guide them to this recognition and confirm it, providing they have confidence they have glimpsed the nature of their mind — also known as ordinary mind.
“I came to Tulku Urgyen yearning for the experience of self-transcendence, and in a few minutes he showed me that I had no self to transcend.”
When one practices like this — noticing oneself being lost in the story of one’s life and suffering needlessly there and allowing it to dissolve — it will start to become habitual. At this point, noticing the empty nature of one’s mind — real meditation — can become the natural reaction the mind takes when it notices suffering. Like a snake tied into a knot, the knots of the mind unwind all by themselves. This is the second stage. Nothing needs to be done; the self-liberating mind has been seen. Another analogy is like ripples in a glass of water, leave them be and the stillness of the water returns on its own.
They would say “how can it be that easy?”
And I would say, “Why do you think it has to be difficult - it really is so easy.”
Then they would say, “But I don’t get it.”
And I’d reply, “What do you mean, you don’t get it? Just let be!”*
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, As it Is, Vol I
The final lofty stage of the yogin’s path is like thieves entering an empty house. Negative thought and emotion may arise, but can no longer cause any harm. It is recognised in that instant that there is no one there for them to afflict. The imagery invoked in Dzogchen is that the yogin’s mind is like the trackless path a bird takes through the sky.
A more modern analogy I have heard invoked:
“You know how there are those non-stick pans? Well, the purpose of meditation is to cultivate a non-stick mind.”
“And the cares that hung around me through the week
Seem to vanish like a gambler’s lucky streak.”
Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald ♪♪
Your entire life up until this point has vanished without a trace. All experience fades away as if a dream. All suffering is like a mirage, like an illusion. Looking for that which it is that suffers is a way to cut through it in an instant. Applying this continually with mindfulness, one can over time decondition oneself from the habit of suffering and learn to rest in the mind as it is.
Meditation is a translation of the Tibetan “Gom”, which literally means “to familiarise yourself with”. This is all it is. To familiarise oneself with this open space of the mind from which all experiences arise from and dissolve into. This continually unfolding experience without a self within it that can suffer.
To those of you who do not understand, to whom these words sound strange — you are not taking them literally enough.
This was the shortest letter I have written in a while. If you have read this far, I would love a reply from you here. Did you get it? Do you understand me here?
Once again, if you are suffering, what is the suffering? Where is it? In the head, in the heart? Who or what is it that is adversely impacted by the “suffering”? If there is a bad feeling in your stomach, what about is there that makes it bad? What is the “self” that the feeling is harming? Looking for that and the knot of suffering is untied. Knowing how to do this, then a path to the end of suffering is revealed.
I sincerely hope that this letter is of benefit to you.
Please let me know if it makes sense.
This does not mean that you should necessarily use meditation to cut through the suffering here in lieu of looking after your body. You can take all the steps to look after yourself without suffering though. ↩︎
I head this in 2017 in a retreat led by the late Sogyal Rinpoche. I am not sure if the analogy is original to him. ↩︎