Sunday, January 17, 2010

Turning The Mind Into an Ally- Book Review

Buddhist Meditation
I have been meditating for about three or four years.  I got started with contemplative prayer.  Then, once I started studying Buddhism have been practicing based on Buddhist meditation techniques.  I've found meditation to be relaxing, frustrating, hard to stick with and extremely beneficial. I want to meditate but there's always something more urgent to do.  I want to meditate but it's so boring just sitting there by myself.  I want to meditate but I just can't slow my thoughts down long enough to feel the time has been well spent. I've read books about meditation and contemplative prayer and listened to many PodCasts.  But, of all the materials I have studied, the best so far is Turning the Mind Into An Ally by Sakyong Mipham.

It's likely you don't think of your mind as an enemy.  But, for many of  us an untamed, out of control mind is just that.  I've known for years that my thoughts race. I knew I wanted to get control of the flashes of anger that could just pop out or the rush of fear that could be triggered by a single thought.  One thought leads to another which leads to another and you "wake up" minutes later to find you've said or done something you regret.  Meditation helps us study the often unconscious habitual patterns our minds fall into, so that we can see those things happening as they happen and, ultimately, before they happen.  Buddhist practice isn't so much a religion as it is a disciplining of the mind and an attempt to face ultimate reality.  When I first started reading the book, it seemed too basic for me, like Meditation 101.  It's written in non-technical language and is full of real-life illustrations that make the material easy to read and grasp.  One metaphor the author uses throughtout the book is comparing the mind to a wild horse that we need to tame and that once tamed is a powerful vehicle to take us where we want/need to go.  I also appreciated that he did not talk about the ego and how it's something we have to kill.  The untamed mind is not something to be killed but something to be tamed.  The goal of meditation is to transform the wild horse into the windhorse which we can ride to boundless joy and freedom.

I've been meditating and following the breath for a few years now.  My meditation practice has been spotty (at best).  This book motivated me to get back on to the cushion.  Thanks to this book, for the first time I think I really understand the purpose of following the breath which is not just following the breath for the sake of counting it or even experiencing it but for the sake of training your mind to focus on what you want to focus on and set aside distractions. This will inevitably fail and you will find yourself drifting and have to re-focus your attention.  This act, repeated time and time again is like yoga for your mind, making it stronger and allowing you to see how it works.   After the mind has been trained in this technique, we can begin to truly contemplate ultimate reality. The joys of being born human, the fact that our actions have consequences, the natural progression of growing older, becoming sick and dying, having compassion for all sentient beings.   And, when we are off of the cushion, we actually have some chance of being able to get control of those patterns we so easily fall into when our mind is running out of control.

I think this is an excellent book for beginning meditators  to those who may have begun meditation a while ago, don't fully understand it or just need a reminder of why it's so important and how it can help. You don't have to be Buddhist or even spiritual to get something out of this book and out of meditation.  It's a book I'm glad to have in my library and one that I'm sure I'll be reading again just to remind myself of how and why to continue to practice.

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Jesse Ahmann said...

When you meditate, do you think Scripture, do you repeat/chant and idea in your mind, or just empty your thoughts?

Brian said...

Unfortunately, my meditation practice is not as regular as I would like it to be. Therefore, my mind is not as tame as I would like it to be. When I'm having trouble focusing, I mostly work on being with the breath. When I've got my mind in pretty good shape, I do move on to contemplate different things and have chanted scripture.

Right now I'm coming off of a period where I wasn't meditating for a while so I find it hard to quiet my mind. I'm working on getting back into practicing regularly and trying to get back to where I can focus on my breath without drifting away.

If I'm focused on the breath pretty well, I'll work on spacing out my thoughts. It's impossible to empty (my) thoughts for any extended period of time. But, what I do find is I can space my thoughts out and I can learn to let go of them. When I'm working on that, I picture my mind as the clear surface of a lake. I'm sitting on the bank watching it or in a boat moving along the surface. When a thought arises I see it as a bubble appearing on the surface. If I go with the thought, it's like it has gotten in the boat with me. What I work on in those cases is just letting the bubble pop and trying to keep the surface smooth.

My meditation sessions always begin with focusing on the breath and checking in on what my mind will be like today. I'll also observe how different it is on different days depending on the weather, what time of day I'm meditating, my mood, etc.

kc bob said...

I like the idea of taming the mind Brian. Ann and I did a few Tai Chi sessions this summer and I did not find the breathing/meditating exercises to be that helpful. Maybe I need to find my own flavor of meditation?

Brian said...

Bot, there are several schools of meditation, even within Buddhism. My opinion is that, since our minds are very different, we shouldn't expect meditation to be one size fits all. What works for me may not work for you and vice versa. Some people choose to begin by meditating on scripture maybe even just one verse or a thought. I think just doing breathing exercises alone without understand the reasoning behind them might not be so useful. I do find it calming to focus on my breath and find that it automatically slows my breathing. But, focusing on the breath isn't the ultimate goal of meditation.

Whether it's contemplative prayer or some other form of meditation, I do believe that meditation is something everyone should at least consider and/or try. We work out our bodies to keep them in good shape. It makes sense to work out our minds. One Buddhist teacher I follow likened meditation to brushing our teeth. It's maintenance for the mind.

kc bob said...

Maybe you can offer a first step in my journey? I do like the idea of taming my mind.

Brian said...

This might be a good place for you to start, Bob. I've found Father Keating's instruction to be most helpful.

I loved his book "Open Mind Open Heart"

kc bob said...

Thanks Brian. I will give it a look.