Buddhist Meditation and Mental Well-being

by the Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche

Born in 1955 in the eastern Tibetan Provence of Kham, the Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche was recognized as the 9th incarnation of the Trangu lineage and enthroned as Abbot of Trangu Monastery. Rinpoche came to Australia in 1980 and established the Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute in 1982. He regularly conducts courses and retreats in Victoria and Australia, and travels extensively overseas giving lectures and seminars on Buddhism.

Buddhist Meditation and Mental Well-being is from his talk at the Mind, Immunity & Health, 4th Annual International Conference Lorne, Victoria, Australia - Hosted by The Gawler Foundation 6th March, 1998

" Health: Being an Integrated and Fully Developed Person
" Meditation of Tranquility: Getting Touch with Ourselves Properly
" Meditation of Insight
" Meditation of Loving Kindness Health: Being an Integrated and Fully Developed Person

We are here this weekend to discuss the issue of health generally. But as you know, when we talk about health, we can talk about it from many different angles, perspectives, and levels. We can look after our physical well-being, our physical health by adhering to certain diets, exercise and so forth. We can also think about psychological health and how to deal with our neuroses, psychological problems of all kinds, from mild neurose.s or psychotic episodes - one minute you are a mild mannered person, the next moment you are mad at your husband. So we also have to look at our own psychological well being. And then there is the spiritual health, spiritual well-being that should also be addressed. To be a whole person, to be an integrated, fully developed person, one needs to be able to take all of these aspects of our being into account. No aspect of our life as a living being is ignored or left out. We have to look after our physical well-being, our psychological well-being and more importantly, our spiritual well-being. Because, according to Buddhism, it is only when we pay attention to our spiritual well-being that we can truly learn how to be a total person. Even addressing our physical health, physical or psychological well-being, it's not enough.

Why? Because we have not dealt with what it is that is really me, the self. We develop various self-images about ourselves - our body and our psychological makeup, our personality characteristics, propensities, predilections, and dispositions - and then we identify with that so strongly that we forget where our original dwelling place is (Buddhists would call it our spiritual home). We are so busy running around projecting this image or that image, identifying ourselves as being this person or that person, that we have lost touch with our own inner core - the original dwelling place. So basically we are 'out-to-lunch'. Nobody Home! Seriously, either with our body, we are so obsessed about being too fat or too skinny, having a large nose, small nose, flat nose! There is this constant preoccupation with our looks and we are obsessed. The amount of attention that we pay to our body is actually so obsessive that we end up doing damage to our body. So instead of getting more healthy, we end up sick because we are worried about the shape, the physical appearance more than the actual physical balance - in terms of how the energy of the body works, as it is in eastern philosophies where we work with the different energy systems. Instead of paying attention to those things (balance of energy), it becomes all about exteriority, outward appearance. When we become like that, we are not at home. We have left the original dwelling place and as a result we have become self-alienated, separated from ourselves.

Meditation of Tranquility: Getting in Touch with Ourselves Properly
In Buddhism we do meditation. Meditation is designed for us to get back to that original dwelling place so that we can get in touch with ourselves properly. Now, when I say 'getting touch with ourselves', according to Buddhism, that self is not an entity. The self, the original dwelling place, is that space where we do not worry about who I am, what I am, what physical characteristics I have, what attributes, qualities, credentials that I have. No, it's open space. So when we meditate we are learning how to enter into that space where we do not have to worry, where we do not have to prove a thing, show our credentials - where we do not have to say I'm John, I'm Tracey, I'm fat, I'm ugly, I'm short, I'm an interfering nosy bastard! You don't have to think like that any more. When we enter into that space through meditation, we begin to learn how to become more focussed, more concentrated, more tranquil. But that does not mean when you start to do meditation your life from then onwards will be so beautiful and the road forward is covered in roses. It's not like that. Even when you meditate, old anxieties, old propensities to experience depression, frustration, anger, resentment, bitterness - they will come up. If you are a meditator, in post-meditation situations, if you are wandering around as if you are on some kind of drug, with a silly grin on your face, then obviously you are on another planet. You've gone off with the fairies. You are not grounded.
Meditation is designed to ground ourselves, in ourselves, with ourselves. Meditation is not there in order for you to go off somewhere or be in some airy-fairy, lovey-dovey, extra-terrestrial, X-file kind of realm. We practice meditation so that we can become more aware, not less aware - more aware, more mindful, more focused, more grounded - so that we can learn to be here and now, to be present. We find it so hard to be present. Our mind is all over the place, constantly. Through the practice of meditation we learn how to come home, how to find the original dwelling place, how to find that sense of groundedness, find our real sense of self-confidence. Normally, in order to find self-esteem we have to prove ourselves to be better than somebody else, to be competitive, to be thinking that it is a dog-eat-dog world. 'I have to be slimmer or more attractive, more articulate, make more money or drive a better car, live in a bigger house than somebody else, than my friends'. Just to boost self-confidence. Neither am I saying that to meditate we should be living in poverty. What I'm saying is, in terms of how we go about dealing with our sense of self identity, self worth, when we go into that sense of inner, the original dwelling place, through meditation, a real sense of self confidence arises. Self confidence is very different to being ego centered, selfish, arrogant, because one begins to find comfort being able to be in oneself, with oneself.
Normally what do we do? We look for comfort elsewhere, through somebody or something else! Our arrogance, our egocentricity, our selfishness, all of that is based on what we have, what we think we have, but never on what we really are. So then, how do we meditate? How do we find that original dwelling place? We do this by paying attention to the breath. We can sit in a chair, or sit cross legged on a cushion, and have our spine straight and shoulders relaxed. Posture is very important according to Buddhism. It relates to the body. Good posture means you will be able to have good meditation. If you are slumping forward or leaning to one side or the other, then you can't have a proper meditation. The spine has to be erect and then you pay attention to the breath. Why the breath? According to Buddhism, the breath signifies life. When we stop breathing, that is when we die. Breath also signifies something else which is also very important in Buddhist philosophy, and that is a sense of impermanence. So to live, we have to die. Life and death, exhalation is death, inhalation is life. When we do that we become very present. We do not have to think about anything else, just pay attention to the breath coming and going. It is also said that when we pay attention to the breath we realize that the breath actually connects the body and the mind. Breath is the conduit. We notice that our breathing pattern corresponds to our mental states - if we become agitated, excited, we breath even harder, our heart starts to pump. That is why we pay attention to the breath, to bring ourselves to the present.
Gradually then as we proceed, we learn how to enter into that state of being where there is no worries, where there's no overwhelming disturbing thoughts arising. Why? Because gradually we learn how to let go of those thoughts and emotions. Thoughts and emotions will keep on arising during meditation, but we learn how to let go of them in the same way that we learn how to let go of the breath. By holding the breath, this will not make us live any longer. You have to exhale, you have to breath out. In a similar fashion, we learn how to let go of our disturbing thoughts and emotions as they arise. They arise and subside, arise and subside. By getting used to that in meditation, our lives will then become less complicated, because our tendency to want to hold onto things and dwell on things, is no longer there, or we do not dwell on those experiences as much as we used to. It's like this. Normally, whenever we have a disturbing experience, although that experience is disturbing enough, what is even more disturbing is that we elaborate, exaggerate and build a whole story around it. Many of us don't have the skill to become a novelist, but we are writing novels every day (with our neuroses) - if only we had the skill to put it together, we could all be millionaires. What stories we tell ourselves all the time - tragedy, comedy, romance, unrealized and unfulfilled dreams! We constantly tell and retell those stories all the time, that is all there is in terms of who we are and what we are, those stories which shape our lives.
Through meditation we begin to realize this is what we do, and we begin to realize that we do not have to believe those stories so much, that we can let go, not become obsessed with them, not get bogged down with them or victimized by the stories that we have told and retold ourselves, constantly. When we let go, then we find stillness, and then we are in a meditative state because we are not allowing ourselves to be pushed that way, pulled this way, thrown around, turned upside down, inside out, by all the stuff that goes on in our mind. Normally we think that we can get our life together if we control the external situation. When people say that they want to get a grip on their life, usually what the means is that they want to control things, situations, other people. But the demon is inside. According to Buddhism, that is what demon means, the devil, Satan, is inside. The devil is that aspect of ourselves that is unexplored, unacknowledged, denied, pushed out. Mara it is called in Sanskrit.
Through meditation we learn how to sit comfortably with the devil, with Satan, incorporated, and then there is peace, then one can find one's original dwelling place. One cannot find one's original dwelling place as long as one is thinking ' I have to be pure, virtuous, this or that', while in the meantime you are beating your wife, or stabbing a colleague at work in the back just to get ahead. We find our original dwelling place by making peace with ourselves in totality.

Meditation of Insight
That concludes the aspect of meditation on tranquillity. I will briefly say something about the meditation of insight and also about the meditation of loving kindness. When we find that original dwelling place, then we develop insight. We cannot have insight when the mind is scattered, when the mind is roaming all over the place, latching onto this, onto that, clinging to this and that. When the mind becomes settled and focused, then the precondition is created for insight to arise. What is insight? In Buddhism, insight is that way of seeing things which is unitive, non-divisive. Our normal way of thinking is divisive, dualistic way of thinking as it is said in the teachings. A dualistic way of thinking is 'this is good, that is bad; I like this, I don't like that; this is beautiful, that is ugly; I want this, I don't want that; this is sublime, that is ridiculous; this is sacred'. So the mind is constantly judging and never stops judging.
Wisdom or insight arises when we can see the inter-connected nature of all things. Everything that exists in the temporal world of space and time are interconnected, interdependent, according to Buddhist teachings, interconnectedly dependent. Mind and body, subject and object, space and time, they do not exist independent of each other. Everything is interdependent. These days, so many eco-philosophers are saying that the biosphere itself operates on that principle of interdependency. Everything is interconnected and that is the unitive way of thinking, instead of thinking that there's mind as a separate thing, existing by itself, independently of each other, body and mind are interrelated, interdependent. Nothing exists by itself, in itself. Buddhist philosophy can be very complicated, but to put it simply, that's what emptiness means. You may have heard about Buddhist teachings with emptiness. Emptiness does not mean nothing exists. Emptiness means nothing has inherent existence. Everything is empty of inherent existence. What does that mean? It means that whatever exists in the world of space and time, exists in a relationship to other things. Nothing can exist on it's own accord. That's where insight, wisdom comes from. To personalize the whole thing, we can say even in terms of our emotions, our traumas, our frustrations, our despair, they are all contingent upon situations, varieties of factors. There is not one cause and effect situation happening here. Whatever we experience is dependent upon varieties of factors - causes and conditions. When we begin to see that, we begin to see our emotions, our emotional afflictions in a different light, and that is wisdom, insight.

Meditation of Loving Kindness
Finally we do meditation on loving kindness. The first two meditations are designed to change our way of thinking, and meditation on loving kindness allows us to deal with our emotions more directly. Loving kindness meditation is normally practiced by contemplating on the Four Infinities - Love, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity. According to Buddhism, love has to be based not purely on our feelings but also on our thoughts, our emotions and feelings all have to be brought together in unison. As we know, when we don't do that, we may think that we are in love, love is blind. This may be true, love gives you a rush, but it may also give you a lot of heartache. You have to bring all aspects of yourself to bare, in terms of how you express your love to another person and to other people.
The same goes for compassion. As one of the greatest 20 century Tibetan teachers, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, has said, 'It is better not to have any compassion than to have idiot compassion'. What is idiot compassion? It is when, without thinking, our heart pours out and we become obsessed, so over whelmed by the object of our compassion that we loose our sense of focus. We become completely overwhelmed. So, even when we have compassion, we also have to be present, be aware. That is why meditation is so important, because when we are focused and aware, then our ability to show compassion increases.
And then there is joy. Joy is very important. As we know, when we feel strong emotions such as love, compassion, it is so easy to become depressed because the task at hand seems so overwhelming, so difficult, that it is not worth pursuing, we feel can't handle it, we can't cope with it, that it's too much. How do we maintain a joyous state of mind? By looking at what we have been able to achieve so far, what we have been able to do, what we have been able to experience through love and compassion, so far. Instead of thinking of all the things that could have been, may have been or may be possible, we look more at what we have been able to achieve. Even if we are talking about the environment, alleviating environmental problems for example, if one is contributing towards that, then one should be thinking more about what one person has been able to do so far, and encourage others to do the same, rather than think that everyone is ruining the world and there's nothing to look forward to but a big natural catastrophe, cataclysm awaiting us at the end and then feeling very depressed about it.
As Shantideva said - it's like going hiking. When you go into the mountains, you don't keep looking ahead and say to yourself that you have to surmount that mountain. Otherwise you run home scared thinking it is too much. Rather, you should be looking back to see how far you have come and then you will feel more energized, more vigor, more resilience. And then you can say to yourself - I've come this far, I've done it, now I can go ahead with no problem. So instead of being overwhelmed by defeatist attitudes, one can inject oneself with a new sense of vigor and enthusiasm. That is why joy is so important in relation to love and compassion. And finally equanimity. Equanimity is so important because without it, love can turn into sentimentality. Love can turn into attachment. Compassion can turn into sentimentality and joy can turn into temporal elation. So we need equanimity, and this comes from sitting meditation, the meditation of tranquillity. We can finish here.
Thank you everyone.