Cultivating Mindfulness in a Dark Age
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

According to many wisdom traditions, we are in a dark age. Over a thousand years ago, Padmasambhava, the great teacher who brought Buddhism from India to Tibet, predicted that this particular dark age would be distinguished by our increasing cleverness. We would create myriad ways to keep ourselves entertained, becoming experts in how to spend free time. We would use our intellect not for betterment but for hanging out in one form of distraction or another, constantly on holiday. Our discursive minds would run rampant. Padmasambhava predicted that as we became more shrewd and clever, compassion would seem increasingly futile, and we would forget how to bring meaning to our lives.
In the Shambhala teachings, we call this dark age the setting sun. The Tibetan word for "setting sun" literally means the dregs, the remains of the day. "Remains" is referring to the last remnants of virtue, in Tibetan gewa, which is positive activity that takes us forward, opening our hearts and minds rather than shutting them down. Actions like compassion and loving-kindness lead to happiness because they uplift our being. In a time when virtue is not valued, turmoil and negativity thicken our minds, causing confusion and unhappiness. We don't have a clear understanding of our purpose or potential. When the activity that enables us to move forward to enlightenment is on the wane, our life-force energy is low. If we do not really understand where things are going or what the journey is-if we do not have a map, so to speak-we lose energy by spinning in circles, not practicing properly in the right direction.
What keeps us from moving forward? What is it that we need to overcome? First of all, we must overcome ambition-trying to accomplish something. When our mind is trying to accomplish something, it's because there is a sense of dissatisfaction, a lack of contentment. This kind of ambition is different from exertion and practicing correctly; it is the wheels that keep samsara going. We are not recognizing the openness of our own nature. Since we do not understand who we are, we keep going around in a circle. We feel that we are getting somewhere, but later we see that we have gotten nowhere. There is always a sense of gain and loss.
Ambition is a sign that we are trying to appease our suffering by thinking that something external will make us happy. Because that approach is ego-centered and aggressive, it will never appease the suffering, it will only fire it up. This kind of ambition is actually bewilderment, not knowing what to do and where to put our faith. We are putting our hope and ambition into all kinds of things, coming up empty-handed.
Meditation and postmeditation heighten our awareness of the qualities of a worthy object. That is why we do formal practice. When we have the courage to literally take our seat and work with our mind, we are cultivating lack of ambition in a positive sense: we can relax into who we are. Opening up our mind in this way gives us the insight to overcome aggression and increase compassion. When we put ambition into this enlightened context, it will actually materialize as something of value.
Another impediment to moving forward in a dark age is attachment to our family and friends. Such attachment only creates suffering for ourselves and those around us. Meditation helps us let go of our fixation on being caught in a karmic situation with others. Or course we want our family and friends to be happy, but a subtle residue of aggression or greed often accompanies our desire for things to go well. As practitioners, we learn to relate to our family and friends without holding on. We need to recognize that if we want our loved ones to be well, to practice well is the most beneficial thing we can do.
In Tibetan culture, when people are having family problems, getting married, or starting a new business, they even supplicate a lama to practice on their behalf. We might think that's spiritual materialism, but conventionally speaking, what do we usually do at such a time? By getting mad or worrying, we try to manipulate the situation in order to get what we want. Not only is that approach ineffective, it gets us even more entangled in attachment. If we're going to be attached, it's better to be attached to the beneficial power of practice.
Fear is another factor that keeps us in a dark age. That fear stems from a lack of trust in our genuine being, which naturally radiates compassion and kindness. Fear comes from ignorance of who we are. If we dwell in ignorance, we start thinking that "me" is a solid entity, that we need to reinforce ourselves, and that there are things to gain and lose. This leads to less compassion and more ambition and attachment.
Depression also drains our life-force energy. Somehow we cannot get our energy up. Depression is another sign of doubt in the potency of our own being. It also has a quality of claustrophobia-we are comfortable within the small domain of limiting concepts. I'm not necessarily talking about clinical depression, but about the depression of our ability to perceive the world as it is. We have padded our perceptions. When we do this, how we engage in the world strengthens our disbelief of our own nature, almost as if radar goes out and bounces back. We feel the room as small and the world as dead, so we can't appreciate who or where we are.
When we're depressed, we don't want to extend ourselves, so we become lazy. Laziness and depression make a nice couple at the party of suffering. There's a low-grade anger involved, a slight irritation at the sight of others celebrating. We want what they have. We can liberate that sense of heaviness and depression by relaxing in terms of how we regard our environment, not in a sloppy way, but by opening our senses. Appreciating where we are right now is a helpful antidote to depression.
Uplifting our minds and increasing our life-force energy begins with a good strategy. In this very difficult period, we need action-oriented practices, starting with mindfulness--paying attention. As practitioners, we have the power to create an uplifted environment that supports us in changing our habits. There is nothing like success, whether it is big or small, so we work with outmaneuvering the negativity by starting small. We begin by looking at the conditions of our life, which may be coming together in such a way that amplifies the darkness of the age.
In our daily cycle, where are we placing our mind? What environmental influences are we encouraging? When mindfulness shows us our options, we'll be able to institute small changes that will have a cumulative effect. I call this the "ten-percent advantage." If we shift our attention in just a few key ways, it's easy to fall into negativity. If we shift our attention in other key ways, it's easy to go in a positive direction. Paying attention to our life and arranging our environment so that it supports us in cultivating compassion is how we move out of the dark age with expediency and momentum.