Overall: 2/5 stars.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is a Tibetan monk who goes on a 4 year wandering retreat in his thirties. What is a wandering retreat, you ask? It’s when a monk leaves their monastery to spend several years alone, stumbling around without aim and essentially living the life of a beggar. Monks already live an ascetic lifestyle (hours of meditation a day, no central temperature control), but these retreats really take it to the next level.
What always astonishes me when learning about the experience of advanced meditators is the extent to which they can find life-changing enlightenment and bliss in the midst of what most of us would consider intolerable circumstances. I think this is a testament to the power, resilience, almost-invincibility of the human mind. Something Sam Harris keeps repeating in the Waking Up app is that you can really find equanimity in any conscious experience, and the large number of stories from monks really backs up this claim.
Facts and definitions
Fun fact that blew my mind:
According to scientists, fifty to eighty thousand thoughts pass through the mind in one day (xv)
The definition of meditation:
The Tibetan word for meditation, gom, means “to become familiar with”: familiar with how the mind works, how it creates and shapes our perceptions of ourselves and the world, how the outer layers of mind—the constructed labels—function like clothing that identifies our social identities and cloaks our naked, nonfabricated state of original mind, whether that outerwear consists of business suits, jeans, uniforms, or Buddhist robes.
Much of the book was about the central tenets of Mingyur Rinpoche’s practice: impermanence, emptiness, the dream-like character of experience, the insubstantiality of the ego or socially constructed self.
Impermanence and death
By habit we perceive ourselves and the world around us as solid, real, and enduring. Yet without much effort, we can easily determine that not one aspect within the whole world’s system exists independent of change. I had just been in one physical location, and now I was in another; I had experienced different states of mind. We have all grown from babies to adults, lost loved ones, watched children grow, known changes in weather, in political regimes, in styles of music and fashion, in everything. Despite appearances, no aspect of life ever stays the same. The deconstruction of any one object—no matter how dense it appears, such as an ocean liner, our bodies, a skyscraper, or an oak tree—will reveal the appearance of solidity to be as illusory as permanence. Everything that looks substantial will break down into molecules, and into atoms, and into electrons, protons, and neutrons. And every phenomenon exists in interdependence with myriad other forms. (14)
I loved this idea about impermanence and death: death is not just what happens at the end of our life, but happens daily with each passing experience and memory. A part of you, or a version of you, dies in each moment. Being aware of this and being in touch with our mortality go hand in hand.
If we recognize the impermanence of everything, our problems have a far less powerful grip over us:
Once we move from the belief that things are unchanging to the experience that everything is transitory, the tension between our expectations and reality as-it-is begins to dissolve; then we can know that the disturbance of this moment will pass, and that if we stay with recognition of awareness, the problem will transform on its own. It doesn’t need any help from us in order to move on. The inherent nature of everything is change. It’s our preoccupation with a problem that nails it in place. (35)
There was various ways to think about “the self”, and they do not all need to be discarded. The idea of no-self is to let go of the belief in an immutable, fixed self somewhere in the center of our experience:
Ego is not an object. It’s more like a process that follows through on the proclivity for grasping, and for holding on to fixed ideas and identities. What we call ego is really an ever-changing perception, and although it is central to our narrative story, it is not a thing. It therefore cannot really die, and cannot be killed or transcended. This tendency for grasping arises when we misperceive the constant flow of our body and mind and mistake it for a solid, unchanging self. We do not need to get rid of the ego—this unchanging, solid, and unhealthy sense of self—because it never existed in the first place. The key point is that there is no ego to kill. It is the belief in an enduring, nonchanging self that dies. The term ego can still provide a useful reference: but we need to be careful not to set ourselves up for battling something that is not there. (39)
In part, our fear of death is really a fear of losing aspects of our self-identity:
Often the inarticulate dread of distant physical death gets mixed up with a closer, daily, more pressing—though unacknowledged—fear of the disintegration of the self. On some level, we know that the labels that construct our identities are not real; and we may fear—perhaps more than physical death itself—that these labels might fall off, like a series of dissolving masks, exposing us in ways that we are not willing to risk. So much of the dread of physical death is about the death of the ego-self, the death of the masks. But if we know that there is a bigger reality in which we live, we can become less afraid of our own authenticity. (54-55)
Recognizing awareness and emptiness
Our normal state of awareness is one of reactivity:
The normal awareness that guides our everyday activities is actually quite cluttered. We generally go about our days with minds filled with ideas of what we want, and how things should be, and with reactive responses to what we like and do not like. (7)
One thing Mingyur Rinpoche’s practice emphasizes is that the boundless, unobstructed mind is always within us and accessible—it’s just a matter of recognizing it:
This clear mind of awareness is always with us, whether we recognize it or not. It coexists with confusion, and with the destructive emotions and cultural conditioning that shape our ways of seeing things. But when our perception shifts to meditative or steady awareness, it is no longer narrowed by memory and expectation, whatever we see, touch, taste, smell, or hear has greater clarity and sharpness, and enlivens our interactions. (8)
There’s an important distinction between intellectually understanding the concepts of meditation and truly having an experiential familiarity with them. While an intellectual understanding of emptiness can help us cope with negative states of mind, the heart still fears those states and wants to protect us from it. Only when we have a deep, experiential understanding of emptiness can we truly rest with negative states of mind, still be aware of the ocean while the waves are passing:
The ocean does not become calm and still. That is not the nature of ocean. But now we have become so familiar with the full expanse of the ocean that even the biggest waves no longer bother us. This is how we can now experience our thoughts and emotions—even those we have spent our lives trying to be free of. Every movement of the mind, and every emotional reaction, is still just a small wave on the vast surface of the awakened mind. (44)
I loved this idea that the opportunity to interrupt our habitual tendencies and act more wisely is in the gaps between moments and experiences. These gaps exist in every moment, but they can be especially noticeable in transitionary moments (between inhale and exhale, between one life stage and another). Recognizing these gaps is to recognize emptiness.
Let’s say that we take an in-breath; every moment along the spectrum of breathing is another now moment. Yet the moment that is closest to the end of the inhalation—the moment that exists at the very edge of a pronounced transition—intensifies our sensitivity to change. Therefore this moment holds greater potential for accessing awareness of the gaps that are always there. (60)
Similarly, there’s a gap between individual thoughts:
The gap between thoughts—like the gap between breaths or moods—allows us to glimpse the naked mind, the mind that is not obscured by preconceptions and patterns of memory. It’s that fresh glimmer that startles us into wakefulness, and reminds us that clouds are temporary surface concerns and that the sun shines whether we see it or not. Noticing the gap introduces us to the mind that does not reach out to grasp a story of loss or love, or a label of fame or disgrace, or a house or a person or a pet. It’s the mind liberated from those misperceptions that keep us stuck in repetitive cycles. (75)
When you pay attention to changes in sensation and perception, you become more aware that everything passes. until we pay attention to the moment-by-moment changes, and we actually watch negative experiences vanishing, we tend not to fully recognize that they disappear.
Because the scan allowed me to register change, it affirmed that I was not destined to this intense discomfort. (71)
Meditation and Western life
On the tradeoff between trying to change yourself and trying to change the world:
I had been surprised when some Westerners asked me to explain the benefit of a wandering retreat. It appeared somewhat selfish to them an idea that would never occur to a Tibetan. Why not stay around and continue to teach dharma-to help others wake up? You could support the efforts in Bodh Gaya to clean up the groundwater; or advocate for the education of girls. So many worth while causes; why go off on retreat by yourself?
People everywhere try so hard to make the world better. Their intentions are admirable, yet they seek to change everything but themselves. To make yourself a better person is to make the world a better place. Who develops industries that fill the air and water with toxic waste? How did we humans become immune to the plight of refugees, or hardened to the suffering of animals raised to be slaughtered? Until we transform ourselves, we are like mobs of angry people screaming for peace. In order to move the world, we must be able to stand still in it. Now more than ever, I place my faith in Gandhi’s approach: Be the change you wish to see in the world. Nothing is more essential for the twenty-first century and beyond than personal transformation. It’s our only hope. Transforming ourselves is transforming the world. This is why I was on retreat, to more fully develop my capacities to introduce others to knowing their own wisdom, and their own capacities for a peaceful life. (104)
On the afflictions and dissatisfactions of people in wealthy, industrialized countries:
The Buddha taught that the mind is the source of suffering and the source of liberation. When I started traveling to modern, industrialized countries, nothing in the world affirmed this foundational truth more than firsthand encounters with the tormented anguish that coexists with god-realm splendor. Without personal transformation, and without some sense of humility—even with regard to the universe itself—greed and anger are pushing us over the cliff. It seems that without acknowledging the way each of us sets ourself up to receive the arrows, we just keep slinging them at each other, misperceiving the source of our anguish to be outside ourselves. (128)
Once again, I concluded that modern urban people seem more stressed and agitated than poor rural people. Having material comforts seems to make people grasp excessively, as they are more afraid of losing their possessions. They are always wanting more and more and are never satisfied. Disadvantaged people in Nepal and India, with much lower expectations, seemed more satisfied with what little they had. I had begun to recognize that the problems that beset modern people at the peak of their family and work lives closely parallel issues that arise for people everywhere at the end of life: an inability to accept impermanence, grasping at what is not available, and not being able to let go. (129)
At some point in his retreat, Mingyur Rinpoche meets a wealthy businessman who is on a meditation retreat of his own. They get to have a conversation about how meditation related to being passive versus active:
Striving for gains had defined his life. I have always feared that becoming more accepting would make me passive. I do not want to be a passive person, he said.
Acceptance and passivity have nothing to do with each other, I explained. It’s important to make this distinction, especially where associations with nonviolence, peace, passive resistance, and passivity have gotten all mixed up. Even some Buddhists think we are supposed to lie down on the train tracks in the face of danger. True acceptance requires an open mind, one willing to investigate whatever arises. It can never be programmed. Quite the opposite, for it necessitates meeting the world with freedom, and maintaining a fresh mind that shows up for all situations. It requires trusting in uncertainty. Acceptance allows for genuine discernment to arise from wisdom, rather than having our decisions limited by rote, unquestioning patterns. (161)
I told the Asian man: Do not worry about succeeding or failing You do not know the size or the measurements of your mind, so you cannot measure its so-called progress. Taking the focus off the goal doesn’t mean giving up. It means staying receptive to the present, it means allowing for a fresh response to what’s happening, and becoming more comfortable with innovation than with repeating stale impersonations of your old self. Of course your mind will stray. It will get caught, hooked, you will be distracted by sights and sounds, your mental composure will fall apart and come together again. That’s how it works. If you can accept whatever happens—good. bad, or indifferent—that is the best practice. (162)
Meditation and pain
Meditating with pain:
The good news about pain is the way it cries out for attention. If you place your mind on your pain, you know just where your mind is. The trick is to stay aware of the mind. Most of the time, when pain asks for attention, we respond by trying to get rid of it. Pain becomes an object outside the mind that needs to be ejected, thrown out. Here’s the curious, counterintuitive aspect about pain: When we meet pain with resistance, the pain does not diminish. Instead we add suffering to the pain. The feeling sensation of pain arises in the body. The negative reaction to pain arises in the mind of the fixed self and transforms physical pain into an enemy. That’s how the suffering arises. When we try to get rid of pain, we pit ourselves against ourselves, becoming private war zones—not environments best suited for healing. For many people, self-pity attaches to sickness like sticky glue, and the voice of the ego asks, Why me? Yet this voice does not reside with the pain in the body but with the mind that identifies with the pain. (177-178)
Pain meditation is an example of reverse meditation – a kind of meditation that prompts us to accept what we typically reject or try to eradicate. Much of the Buddhist path is a reversal of common societal patterns – contemplation of death, renunciation of ego, acceptance of pain and negative feeling – some refer to this as swimming against the stream.
Throughout the book, Mingyur Rinpoche described in detail the actual instructions for his meditation practices; this is a meditation on pain:
Who is having this pain? One of my esteemed roles?
They are only concepts.
Pain is a concept.
Cramp is a concept.
Stay in the awareness beyond concepts.
Let the self-beyond-self accommodate both concepts and no concepts: pain and no pain.
Pain is just a cloud, passing through the mind of awareness.
Cramps, stomach, pain are all intense forms of awareness.
Stay with the awareness and become bigger than the pain. In awareness, like sky, there is no place for the concept to abide.
Let it come. Let it go. Who holds the pain?
If you become one with your pain, there is no one to hurt. There’s just a concentrated sensation that we label pain.
No one holds the pain.
What happens when no one holds the pain?
Just pain. Actually, not even that, for pain is just a label.
Feel the sensation. Beyond concept, yet present. Nothing extra.
Experience it. Let it be.
Then I returned to just resting my mind in open awareness. (179-180)
The dream-like nature of life
I really like this idea of recognizing the dream-like nature of our experience. Bringing together the ideas of emptiness, impermanence, no-self, and so on.
It is true, just as the wisdom masters have told us, that life is a dream. Some images hold more meaning than others, but they have no greater substance. (233)
Real or not real, I can still enjoy it, like watching a movie. Real or not real, it makes us laugh and cry. I had enjoyed flying over green emerald fields in Tibet. I like that dream better than the one of boulders crashing down. I like the dream of a healthy body better than the dream of a sick body. I like the dream of the open road better than being hooked up to this bed. All of life is a magic display of light and form, a universe of infinite blessings that invites us to turn our hearts inside out, and to love completely, to love until the inexhaustible end of dreams. (234)
Clearly I highlighted a whole lot from the book – so why 2 stars? It’s mostly because although a lot of the passages were crisp descriptions of contemplative experiences, the book as whole didn’t have much that tied it together. There were some points at which it felt like his story was just droning onwards.
There’s one other difficulty with any meditation book, which is that a lot of these experiences are extremely difficult to put into words. While Mingyur Rinpoche did a pretty good job at, I’ve read other books that I felt were more effective at this (e.g. Douglas Harding’s On Having No Head).
One of my favorite passages from the book was at the very end, when Mingyur Rinpoche shared the letter that he had sent to his students prior to leaving the monastery for his retreat:
In parting, I would like to give you one small piece of advice to keep in your heart. You may have heard me say this before, but it is the key point of the entire path, so it bears repeating: All that we are looking for in life—all the happiness, contentment, and peace of mind is right here in the present moment. Our very own awareness is itself fundamentally pure and good. The only problem is that we get so caught up in the ups and downs of life that we don’t take the time to pause and notice what we already have.
Don’t forget to make space in your life to recognize the richness of your basic nature, to see the purity of your being and let its innate qualities of love, compassion, and wisdom naturally emerge. Nurture this recognition as you would a small seedling. Allow it to grow and flourish.
Many of you have generously asked how you can help support my retreat. My answer is simple: Keep this teaching at the heart of your practice. Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, pause from time to time and relax your mind. You don’t have to change anything about your experience. You can let thoughts and feelings come and go freely, and leave your senses wide open. Make friends with your experience and see if you can notice the spacious awareness that is with you all the time. Everything you ever wanted is right here in this present moment of awareness.
I will keep you in my heart and in my prayers.
Yours in the Dharma,
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (252-253)