Last Thursday, I was absolutely delighted to have been able to attend Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s lesson on Meditation and going beyond mindfulness at the London School of Economics. Having read and reviewed his book The Joy of Living a month ago, it was with luck that I spotted tickets to the event whilst scanning through Eventbrite. As you would expect from a talk by a Buddhist master, the content was very informative and enlightening. But what really set the teaching apart was Rinpoche’s ceaseless sense of humour. I think I laughed more than I have at many a comedy club. Perhaps it is because meditation appears to be a somewhat serious business that made his humour all the more heightened in contrast. Here are some of the insightful and humourous things we learned.
Rinpoche (a title of honour given to the most revered Buddhist teachers) gave us ample opportunity for choice, first allowing the audience to decide on the order of the content for the evening. We collectively settled upon 1) His story about learning to meditate, 2) Instruction on how to meditate, 3) Meditation practice.
Rinpoche’s meditation journey started at the tender age of eight, when he asked his mum to ask his dad if he could learn meditation from him. His father, an experienced meditation teacher, instructed Yongey Mingyur. As a child, he experienced what so many of us can relate to in our meditation learning, namely the inability to stay awake and the onset of boredom as we try our best to have a ‘good practice’. Knowing him to now be a meditation master is an aspiration for those who either remember or are currently experiencing such moments where we judge those sleepy experiences as something ‘bad’ rather than something that can be worked into our practice. Even sleepiness, as amusingly demonstrated by Rinpoche (he feigned slowly falling asleep and jerking awake) can be an opportunity to practice connecting with our awareness.
Rinpoche had chronic panic attacks as a child. As he spoke about how he would often ‘panic about being panicked’, which was worse than the initial panic itself, I felt I understood his meaning in my own context. I had always struggled (and sometimes still do) with being angry about being angry. It is extremely true that by welcoming and accepting our fears or undesirable parts of ourselves rather than fighting them, they begin to lose their power as they diffuse into a state of awareness. The more we practice, the more we can become comfortable with ourselves, warts and all. Of course we need to be prepared that these more difficult parts of ourselves may be the ones we face in our meditation practice, not necessarily a place of calm as meditation is often misconceived to be. It goes without saying that those suffering any severe issues should not necessarily meditate if this would root up more trauma. With meditation, we must be prepared to face the very harsh parts of ourselves. In Rinpoche’s case, his panic and aversion to panic. In my personal case, my anger and aversion to anger.
Rinpoche then called us all into awareness and asked us to raise our hands when we felt we fell into one of three categories: 1) someone who feels they are aware, 2) someone who is not aware, 3) someone who is not sure if they are aware or unaware. He pointed out that regardless of which category we selected, we were all aware. In order to identify yourself as broadly ‘not aware’ indicates that you are aware. Similarly identifying yourself as ‘unsure whether you were aware or unaware’ proved you were aware of your position. Therefore, everyone is aware. Rinpoche then joked that if we were all aware, why were we wasting time at his talk? He encouraged us to discuss this conundrum for a few minutes.
After many views being shared about why we were there/what meditation practice was really for if we were already all aware, Rinpoche provided an answer. His explanation was that awareness is always there and that we may have a lot of other things going on in and around it, but ultimately our awareness is always present. It is more our recognition of awareness that can be absent, which is what meditation practice is about: maintaining a recognition of awareness.
Next, Rinpoche demonstrated a dilemma frequently faced by practitioners: the misplaced belief that during a practice you should have no thoughts and should not be judgmental. He demonstrated this in a rather amusing way, asking what a popular British dish was. Of course the answer was ‘fish and chips’, which unfortunately when voiced by the audience at varying times had the Rinpoche quizzing ‘Shishyshish?!’ Finally, one voice sounded ‘fish and chips’, with Rinpoche joking he’d like a vegetarian option. Another audience member shouted out ‘chips, cheese and beans’. And so a new meditation practice was born. Rinpoche asked us all to meditate for a minute, emphasising that at no time during that minute were we allowed to think about chips, cheese and beans. Even a second of thinking about it would mean we failed the task. Whilst a handful of people at the end of the minute stated they had been able to complete the task, the rest of us waved our hands in failure. Rinpoche pointed out how difficult it is to ignore thoughts that simply are there and that we shouldn’t deny the thoughts. Instead we should simply notice them. If we think, that’s fine. If we don’t think, that’s also fine. If we judge, that’s fine. If we don’t judge, that’s also fine. The key point is to simply be aware of what we are doing. Who knew that a chips, cheese and beans meditation could better help everyone understand meditation!
Rinpoche also discussed meditation by the six senses, as I covered in my meditation mix tape post. He also provided advice of dealing with emotions in meditation, recommending to be aware of bodily sensations whilst feeling the emotion, trying something different (i.e. a different meditation based on a sense such as smell, sight, sound), stepping back to view the situation and then taking a break.
For dealing with attachment, his example was holding up your thumb an arms length away and then gradually drawing it closer and closer to your eye. This was his practical example of how when we focus so much on things we are attached to, it can become everything and we cease to be able to notice everything else in life. Examples he gave were money and negative emotions. We can often miss out on everything else in our world when we focus too much attention on one thing.
For illness, he recommended doing what the western world would call a ‘body scan’, where you focus on your body and how it feels, as a form of meditation. And for those requesting a mantra, he recommended the Buddha Medicine mantra, Tayata Om Bhekandze Bhekandze Maha. Bhekandze Randza Samungate Soha.
For busy parents, Rinpoche suggested picking one set moment of a day that you spend with your child, for example meal time, and to use this time to practise meditation through practising recognising awareness. Being mindful during meal time would involve being aware of the taste of the meal, your bodily sensations, sounds, smells, etc. Meditation can be done everywhere and anywhere.
Rinpoche also gave an example of sound meditation, firstly asking us ‘Are you ready to learn sound meditation?’ and secondly, ‘Are you ready to practise sound meditation?’. After sounding his singing bowl and asking if we all could hear the sound, he congratulated us on learning how to do sound meditation and then pointed out that in learning to do so, we’d already completed sound meditation practice. The truth in the practice is simply being aware of what we are doing, sensing or feeling.
The overall conclusion that I took from Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s teaching was that at any and every moment that we recognise our awareness, we are meditating. There’s no special trick to it. Simply by practicing to maintain our recognition of awareness will naturally result in the peace and clarity that so many aspire to achieve.