Teaching Meditation: First Steps into a new Practice

On January 3rd, I stepped into teaching meditation to a group of colleagues. Our staff PD day included the opportunity to offer instruction on a variety of topics and I chose something from my background, meditation.

I’ve been trained in meditation and Buddhist practice since 1997. That’s not so long a time to study and honestly after my teaching session, I clearly have work to do. At the same time, I do have some training and knowledge that I brought to bear during this session.

I based my teaching on my recent work by Dodrupchen Jigme Tenpe Rinpoche in his book Transforming Suffering and Happiness into Enlightenment. The book, short, concise, and pithy, offers a lot of insight into meditation and mindfulness. His words offered the perfect counterpoint to my training and a recent workshop led by Patrick Gaffney of Rigpa helped ground my teaching to this group.

I began with a quotation from the movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The quotation, written by screenwriter Eric Roth and delivered by Brad Pitt, is a wonderful place to start any practice.

For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. 
You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. 
And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.

Eric Roth

As I leaned into the instruction, I followed the practice of my various teachers and informal mentors: Sogyal Rinpoche, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, and most recently Patrick Gaffney. I stayed close to the source material and offered ways for people in the room to work with their minds.

Included here are the instructions I developed for the teaching.

What The Hell Do I Know About Meditation and Why AM I In this Handbasket?
Are you ready to just sit for a minute? What I mean is to rest this weary mind of ours. While we have just begun this semester, I can say with some confidence that many of us are weary. We came to this day early, by 7:30AM. We’re getting ready for the semester, we’re thinking about what’s to come, we’re inundated with information and new things to consider and figure out. We are, simply put, starting the semester overwhelmed.

So, let’s try to find some space in our hearts and minds for the kind of rest that we all deserve…it’s the kind of rest that allows our weary or troubled mind to settle. In that spaciousness of our settled mind, we can find compassion for those around us and reach out to be heard, to be seen, to find acceptance regardless of the baggage we’re carrying or the struggles we’ve had.

What we will work with today is to expand spaciousness in your mind and heart. We’ll do this by recognizing the gaps between our thoughts. We’ll also open to compassion; compassion for yourself, compassion for those of us in the room, compassion for those in the school, community, and beyond. I want to help you find compassion for all of it…because, from my perspective and the perspective of my mindfulness education, it’s compassion that’s the key to unlock the spaciousness in our hearts and minds….that’s where I hope we can go, today.

  • This spaciousness, this openness, this compassion comes from expanding the space between thoughts and emotions. Here’s the main idea: that between thoughts and emotions are gaps, spaces between the next thought and emotion. If we pay attention, we can experience this gap or space. It’s this space that we want to stretch….to increase the gap between thoughts.
  • That’s one reason why folks who do meditation talk about focusing on the breath. The breath has a gap between the in and out breath. That space or gap is similar to the space or gap between thoughts.
  • So, in meditation or mindfulness practice, using the breath as an object is one way to become aware of that space in both your breath and your mind.
  • We’ll try this experience a little later. Try to just witness the spaces between thoughts using the breath.

So, what ABOUT ME? What makes me an expert in the practice of mindfulness and meditation? Well, first I am not claiming any expertise. I have knowledge and coursework that has helped me in the past and I’m passing on that knowledge to you.

I have specific training in a couple of types of Mindfulness/Meditation practice.

  • I have been in training on the Vajrayana path since 1997. I’ve taken 36 classes on this path and have done meditation and mindfulness workshops on Vajrayana more than ten times. I have done several silent retreats, solo retreats, and meditation training.
  • I have taken classes by Jon Cabot-Zinn using his text Full Catastrophe Living. Those courses have led to certification as a trained student on his approach.
  • I’ve done a series of workshops on Mindfulness as it relates to school and students through Highland University.
  • I am not a Vajrayana teacher nor do I claim any particular knowledge. I have training and that only takes someone so far.

Before I give some instruction, I want us to share something about ourselves; one big part of meditation and mindfulness practice is to have support. Community support is really important – having folks around you you can share your experiences, ideas, or ask questions and wonder about what’s happening and why.

At our school, we tend to live in our rooms, trying to recover from the classes we teach. I think we all understand the drain on our hearts and minds that teaching presents to us; what I’m hoping we can do here in this space is just open, a bit, to the conversation about being mindful. So, if you’re feeling loose and comfortable, let’s start by providing some small piece of information about you…it can be literally anything you want to say in this space.

  • A couple of ground rules: this space is sacred and we’ll keep what we say and experience in this room.  When I say sacred, I want to be clear that sacred spaces are one really important aspect of maintaining and nurturing a meditation and mindful practice….so, this space is sacred.
  • Second, we can share anything at all.
  • Third, we can listen without judgement….as my instructors said, we listen with our hearts and not our rational mind…that means we hear without questions…someone says something and sometimes our urge is to ask a question or want more information.  Today, we listen without that part of our mind…we listen with our hearts…the open, vulnerable place in our spirituality.

II. Approach of This Workshop

I’ll base this workshop on the instructions and teachings given by Dodrupchen Jigme Tenpe Rinpoche in his book Transforming Suffering and Happiness into Enlightenment.

While this approach sounds very friggin Buddhist, it’s not about Buddhism. If you know something about Buddhism, you know it’s a social-psychological system rather than a religion. Rinpoche’s book is a practical guide on how to accomplish a meditative state of mind with some tools we have available to us. He and we are working on awareness.

So, that means you won’t need to have any knowledge or background to understand what I’m going to say. It also means that you don’t have to understand, know, or even accept Buddhism as a practice or belief system. Knowing Buddhism can be a hindrance to understanding this approach…so my recommendation is to forget what you think you know and just listen.

If this approach doesn’t work, forget it and find something else. Only use an approach that you think can work for you…that may involve trying and rejecting many approaches to get to the point that you can find something that works for you.

III. What are we going to do today?

First, I’m going to give you some of the background and the instructions Rinpoche provides in his book. This information I learned in courses I’ve taken over the last year. For me, this approach is not unusual or unique.

Second, I’m going to help you understand the ways in which meditation and mindfulness can work. Meditation and Mindfulness relies on your existing spirituality. As all my teachers have said, you cannot have mindfulness without a spiritual practice. They are quite clear in their perspective that meditation and mindfulness must be based on a spiritual practice like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or anything else. Without that ground, your practice generally does not progress.

Third, I’m going to teach you ways to meditate that are not just sitting….bringing meditation into your daily life involves integrating practice into things like washing dishes, walking, the gym, folding clothes, etc. Every single practice can lead to awareness…the ultimate goal of meditation.

Finally, we’ll finish with a guided meditation that helps you see a way to allow your mind to settle and thoughts to slow down. We’ll try to reach a place of spaciousness….basically gaps or spaces between thoughts.

II. The Basic Teaching

We have incidental layers of ego – thoughts, feelings, and emotions – that cloud our understanding of what’s really going on around us.

Things just keep popping up in our lives that distract us from just living our lives. These things can be anything from getting the flu, injuring some part of your body, a child or friend yelling at you, frustration that it’s taking 20 minutes to get coffee at a coffee shop, your car battery dies….literally anything that happens.

We can’t get rid of all these things that just seem to crop up all the time. As much as we want things to just be easy, they’re not. Frustration grows, anger grows, or sadness overwhelms us as we again must deal with ONE MORE THING.

Our struggles come when we try to reject those things in our lives – we experience AVERSION – simply put, we want to run away from that stuff. We try to come up with ways to reject those experiences…maybe we try to mask them or DO something to distract ourselves. Maybe when we experience sadness, we just try to push it away. For some of us, our main means of distraction are podcasts, books, TV, movies, or filling our mind with more and more information. Those distractions are sooooo good. We grab on to those distractions not realizing that we’re avoiding the thing that we need to somehow deal with….our mind and its discontents!
e. Too, many of these events are completely beyond our control – weather, other people reacting to us, etc. So, many of us want to just run away from these experiences or moments. We isolate ourselves, and thoughts fester in us around these experiences. Maybe we hang on to those experiences for decades, as expressions of sadness or anger.

We try to hang on to happiness, grasping at the idea that if I can just keep this moment here, I will be OK. Trying to extend those happy moments if we can. That can lead us to feelings of regret or sadness as the happy moment becomes a distant memory and we try to hang on to those moments.

  • For me, I remember the relationship I had with my grandmother. It was truly remarkable, and I find myself feeling deep sadness for her passing and the lack of that unconditional love in my life. I can feel such longing for that missing experience. So, a thing that was happy for me becomes sad. My mind took a wonderful experience and made it a struggle. Simply put, our minds can, in a moment, deceive and delude us.

III. The Hard and Good Things can be a source for our meditation or mindful practice

So, what can we do? What is possible? How can we figure out a way to move beyond these mental traps, these conflicting emotions or thoughts? Dodrupchen said that we can take a challenging event or moment and use that as an object, a way to find mindfulness or meditation. He used the term AWARENESS. To find some Awareness about what that event, situation, feeling means, and then to let that thing go.

Second we can apply our spiritual teachings from our lives as a means of recognizing that even the bad stuff can be turned to good. For example, if we come from the Christian spiritual tradition, we might apply the idea of forgiveness toward that bad situation. We might focus on what that forgiveness looks like; we might imagine going through the actions of forgiveness; we might call someone on the phone and start a conversation about that thing that happened.

My teacher Sogyal Rinpoche would say NOT to dig too deeply…because that always brings up the kind of dirt that sticks to you even though those experiences are years behind us…so, you can use your imagination and go through the process of forgiveness, saying, in your mind, what that forgiveness looks like. Maybe you don’t call that person you were hurt by; maybe what you can do is to imagine the conversation in your mind and then release the feeling, offering forgiveness in a way that feels real and substantial.

Third, anything, any practice can be a way to awareness….a state of being that allows us to roll with the punches; to go with the flow, so to speak, and not get bogged down into a mess of emotional baggage. Those practices can be something as simple as when a bad feeling arises, saying, “Thank you for being here and helping me learn how to let go of my attachments, my grasping, my fear, etc.” Any thought, emotion, feeling can be a tool for finding awareness and compassion.

Fourth, our ultimate goal is to expand our hearts or as Dodrupchen said it, to expand our compassion. To recognize that any event, positive or negative, can be seen through the lens of compassion. Compassion for ourselves, those around us, even those people who hurt us.

So, , you must have compassion for every single being. Dzongar Khentsye Rinpoche said that itdoesn’t matter it it’s Donald Trump or that mean neighbor next door. Everyone deserves your compassion. Of course, that does not mean that you have to accept their actions; you can have compassion for an individual but not their actions. You can wish someone well “may you be happy, may you be well..” Too, having compassion for yourself is at the center of it all. Being kind to yourself.

To keep us from being self-centered, meaning compassion only for ourselves, we need to bring into our practice everyone. Friends, family, etc.

Too, one of the struggles is to avoid negative thoughts and actions. We’ve all experienced negative thoughts on any given topic or idea. We get stuck, sometimes, on those negative situations. I’ve been absolutely wound up in negative thoughts about all kinds of things. We all do; sometimes we kind of revel in that experience, sharing our thoughts with each other. Too, letting our minds spin into those negative places is absolutely a natural experience….the way to deal with that moment is just this: bring to your thoughts: Can I change this situation? Is it at all possible for me to do anything to make a different outcome?

  1. If Yes, then make your plan; If No, then let it go. Let whatever you’re holding on to end. It’s a difficult process to work through and it is the path to awareness and compassion.

IV. The Practice

We take any bad moment, event, experience and use that as an object to meditate.

We take any good moment, event, experience and use that as an object to meditate.

  • In reality, they are all just moments, experiences and we can use those experiences as an object…a focus of our meditation.
  • The thing about suffering is that we can see suffering everywhere. It’s all around us. To begin, we start by saying to ourselves, all of these bad things that happen are terrible and we have two choices:
  • Can we do anything about them? Yes or No? If Yes, then develop a plan for dealing with the problem or issue. What specific actions can you take to resolve the problem, whatever it is? Are those steps that you can take something you are willing to do? If not, drop it. If you are willing to move forward, develop a plan for actualizing these steps.
  • If No, drop attachment to it and recognize that you can do nothing about it. The attachment is the grasping at the problem or situation. The work we need to do is on attachment to the problem or question. Worry is that attachment to the problem or question. We worry, think, feel, all kinds of things related to experiences.
  • First, with this problem or question that you cannot change, why are you attached to it? What about the problem are you concerned about. If you can do nothing, what keeps the thought in your head? Are you worrying about that event, thing? What will that worry accomplish? What is it doing to you? Does it make feelings rise in you in the moment? Do you want to feel those feelings of pain and loss? Is it possible that those feelings are somehow misplaced; that they are directed at another situation, person, or event?
  • Second, keep the thought in your mind, for a moment; is it possible to see the thought as nothing more than an object? Like a cloud…something that has no substance. Because, as you already know, thoughts are insubstantial….as real as they can feel and seem to be, they are, in fact, without substance.
  1. Imagine that, for a moment, you turn off the self-critical voice. That’s voice that is questioning your purpose, focus, attention, etc. This voice is one of the main limits to meditation practice; it’s the “You should be doing something, NOW.”
  2. It’s no longer telling you to do something right now…the object, the cloud, is just there…now, imagine this idea is getting more and more diffuse…it slowly disappears….in its place is space….see that space as something like an open field, the blue sky above you…you can see into the sky the deep blue of the afternoon sky…cloudless, still.

So, if you experienced aversion – fear or loathing of just dealing with the problem, that’s OK…what you want to be able to do is recognize that aversion…and then focus on that…what’s causing me to be so resistant to thinking or even dealing with those moments?

We want to help our minds reach the point that there is a positive in considering the hard stuff. Too, to recognize that we can accept that some crappy things happen and we don’t have to feed that thought or idea….we can just let it be. Nothing lasts forever…nothing. That impermanence, the passing of experiences, can be a source of freedom.

Realize too that always reflecting on suffering and maintaining thoughts of suffering in our minds is a kind of mind sickness, according to Dodrupchen. He called this in Tibetan semne – literally mind-sickness. We get stuck in those and feelings and cannot seem to escape them.

It leads us, he said, to being on edge all the time – Zere or lacking in joy. We may have anger and resentment rise in us and we hang onto it. We are literally trapped by our own thinking. We cannot even imagine joy.

Think about the things we’ve raised:

  • Uselessness of thoughts about suffering
  • That suffering/bad experiences happen – change your focus
  • To do all of this takes real courage and determination. The determination to bring real mental change and to find the courage to let go of what Dodrupchen called small-mindedness…being stuck on one or two thoughts over and over again.
  • Our minds are infinite and spacious. To rehash the same problems over and over again keeps us from being spacious; we close our mind to awareness and to compassion; it’s really hard to have compassion for anyone with our thoughts turned inward.

Our goal, then, is to try and leave our mind undisturbed. To avoid discursive thoughts about things.

  • Let the mind rest.
  • Change the environment of your mind
  • Transition to meditation – we’re looking for ways to change the way we attach to thoughts and emotions.
  • We’re going to be attentive to our mental environment
  • Don’t focus on details.
  • Use humor as a tool to break free from those discursive thoughts

If negative thoughts occur, welcome them in by saying the phrase in your mind “how wonderful you’re here today!” Welcome!

  • Be OK with your own limitations or struggles…it really is OK to say this or that is too hard. Being kind when struggle happens can lessen the struggle…NOT ONLY that but the struggle can take on a more nuanced, and less prominent place in your experience.

Practices of Meditation that are actually not meditation

  • Sitting meditation is a great thing AND developing that kind of practice takes time, undisturbed space, intentionality, and focus. If you can do it, great, if not, use small, very brief practices to settle your thoughts.
  • Walking, Biking, Skating, Running, any kind of movement meditation. Any kind of movement can lead to a meditative state. Think about when you were playing a sport as a kid; you were in the moment, passing the ball, running, jumping, whatever. In some of those moments, thoughts left you and they were replaced with action. That action can also be knitting, painting, drawing, any of those physical action.
  • In movement meditation, your focus is on the movement…when you are walking, focus on your movement – feet, legs, arms, etc. focus on those movements. Try to get into the very small motions that cause movement. While drawing, the feel of your fingers on the pencil, pen, etc. While walking or running, the feel of your feet on the ground, your toes in the shoes, etc. look down the bridge of your nose in front of you. Direct your vision about 4-6 feet in front of your feet. Allow your mind to focus on that spot. Just walk.
  • When washing dishes, look at each dish as you wash it or put it into the dishwasher. Pay attention to each action in the process. Your thoughts will slowly come to a stop, replaced with just this awareness.

The information included in this workshop was created and developed by Thomas Gentry-Funk for the sole use of Thomas Gentry-Funk. Use of this information and workshop is available by request. Want to borrow my ideas? GREAT! That means contacting me and communicating with me both in writing in through live voice connection directly with me. Use of this material may incur costs that are required to use this material. As always, make contact with the owner of any information they post and have a conversation about these ideas. Too, keep in mind that many of these ideas were communicated in a public setting by trained individuals. I encourage you to communicate with those folks for a deeper understanding of these ideas.

May you be happy, may you be well.