What We Need to Know before Meditating

Understanding Our Capabilities

We haven’t spoken much about whether we actually think it’s possible to achieve all of this stuff, and whether I am capable of achieving it. This gets into the whole discussion of Buddha-nature, which basically refers to the factors that all of us have that allows for the transformation to a Buddha. This deals primarily with the characteristics of the mind.

Are we capable of understanding things? Yes. Are we capable of remaining aware of something all the time? Well, we can be aware of something for a period of time, so could the length be increased? Yes. We could increase it through the methods of meditation and familiarization, but in the most basic terms success in this depends on our own interest and motivation. It has to be important and relevant to us.

It’s like being aware of how much money you have with you when you go shopping, because you can’t go spend more than that. Other times, when you’re sitting at home it makes no difference how much money you have in your pocket. Its irrelevant and you don't care. Similarly, when we think about the teachings, they need to be relevant to us. To feel they're relevant, we need to understand their function and why they’re important. We can boil it down to a basic state of mind called a “caring attitude,” where we’re concerned about ourselves and what happens to us and what we experience.

Caring about Ourselves

We can perhaps understand the function of this caring attitude more easily when it's directed at others. If I don’t care about others then it really doesn’t matter what I do or say, or whether they like it or not. But if I consider them important, then I’ll be concerned with how my behavior affects them. We need to develop this same caring concern about ourselves, that, if I waste all my time and don’t take advantage of my precious human life, at some point I will die with an unbelievable regret about this huge waste.

We can direct this toward the normal things of everyday life too. I care about how I raise my children, how I do my work; I care about my general state of mental and physical welfare. It's with this type of attitude that we’ll consider the teachings as important to us. Slowly through keeping the teachings in mind, we’ll be able to remember them, if not all of the time, then at least a lot of the time. Meditation is the method to familiarize ourselves with the teachings over and over so that they become a natural part of our minds, where we don’t even need to use any effort to remember them.

If we’re convinced that we’re capable of gaining these insights, then we’ll put our full hearts into doing it. If we aren’t convinced, then it’s like flapping our arms to try and fly: why would you even bother? At the start we probably won’t even know what liberation or enlightenment means, but we have the long-term goal to understand this and put effort toward it, while the awareness of death is helpful to urge us not to waste our life away.

Meditation on Compassion

Now we’re ready to look at the third step in the process, meditation. As a way to introduce this topic, Tsongkhapa, the great Tibetan Buddhist master, wrote very helpful advice. In A Letter of Practical Advice on Sutra and Tantra, he wrote that in order to meditate we need to “discern what are the causes for the state of mind that we are trying to achieve.” So if we want to develop compassion, for instance, we need to know what causes will lead to the development of it.

This is the axiom of dependency – that to develop the wish for others to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering (the definition of compassion in Buddhism) we need to recognize that we are interrelated with them. Otherwise we wouldn’t care about them at all. So we need to consider how our entire existence is dependent on the hard work and kindness of everyone – those who have produced our food, built our roads, and on and on. Remembering all they have done to make our lives possible, we generate gratitude and appreciation. When sincere and deeply felt, our sense of gratitude naturally brings on a heart-warming love with which we cherish them highly and would feel badly if anything terrible happened to them. That leads to love: the wish for them to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. But when we see that they are not happy, but are afflicted with all sorts of suffering, we develop compassion. Our development of compassion depends on all going through all these steps, in their proper sequence.

Compassion also depends on having renunciation, which means recognizing our own sufferings, being determined to be free of them, and then realizing that everyone else has the same sufferings and the same wish. Renunciation is precisely that – the determination to be free from suffering. Compassion, as the same determination directed toward others’ suffering, clearly depends on first having that same determination toward ourselves.

So if we want to try and generate the state of compassion in our meditation, this point of dependency is really important because, although eventually with a great deal of practice and familiarity we’ll be able to generate it instantly, at the start we need to go through steps to build ourselves up to a level where we actually feel it sincerely. To actually meditate on compassion then, we need to know the steps or the causes that it will depend on.

Tsongkhapa goes on to say that we also need to “know the aspects,” which means that if we are to generate compassion, we need to know all the different aspects of suffering and the different aspects of the causes of suffering, if we’re going to want everyone to be free of it all. This isn’t just about helping them find a job or something nice to eat – we’re talking about the all-pervasive suffering of uncontrollably recurring rebirth (samsara), and the most fundamental unawareness and confusion about reality that generates and perpetuates samsaric existence. To meditate on love and compassion, you don’t just sit there and think, “Ah how nice, I love everybody.” That’s way too vague – the states of mind that we want to generate are very specific. Tsongkhapa mentions all the things that will enable us to specify the state of mind we’re trying to work with.

Then, it’s very important to know what we’re focusing on when we’re trying to develop the state of mind. What should appear in our minds? With compassion, we’re focusing on other beings and their suffering. And here it’s not just compassion, but “great compassion,” which is directed equally toward everyone. And that’s a lot of beings – it’s really everyone. It’s an unbelievably huge scope to think, “I’m going to help every insect in the universe.” We’re talking here about each individual mental continuum, which due to their karma is now manifesting an insect life. It doesn’t mean they’re always insects – we’re going to liberate the being that in this lifetime is an insect, but in the last lifetime was my mother. And we’ll liberate my mother in this lifetime, who in her last lifetime might have been a worm.

It’s not so easy to visualize every single being but in vast-minded Mahayana Buddhist practice we try to imagine a huge audience of beings around us when we’re doing our practice, and we’re alleviating everyone of their sufferings. In the beginning of many Mahayana sutras, it describes audiences of tens of hundreds of millions of beings all around, which provides an idea of the scope.

Having this kind of universal compassion equally toward everyone is actually unbelievable. The basis for it is equanimity, where we open our minds to all others. We need to know all of this in order to be able to meditate properly on compassion.

In addition, we need to know how the mind relates to what we’re focusing on. If we’re meditating on compassion, we have the wish that they become free from suffering, and that all of the causes of their suffering are destroyed. It’s not the wish that someone else will step in to help them, or that the suffering is just gone in general, but that we ourselves will try to help them overcome it.

Tsongkhapa further points out that we have to know what is going to be beneficial and help us for developing compassion and what’s going to be detrimental and harmful. What will not only help us to develop compassion, but what is absolutely essential is to be convinced that it’s actually possible for people to be free of suffering. If we don’t think it’s possible, then how could we wish for and work toward it? The basis for this is the confident belief that I can become free of my suffering, and that I’m capable of helping others overcome their suffering. For this, we need to have a realistic understanding of what we’re capable of, and even what a Buddha is capable of. What is detrimental to our development of compassion, then, is not only self-centeredness and selfishness, but also discouragement and a lack of self-confidence. After all, Buddha said that suffering cannot be removed like a thorn from someone’s foot. Even a Buddha can only show the way, but others need to do the hard work themselves. How can we expect that we’ll be able to outdo the Buddha?

In short, if we don’t have an understanding of the specifics of generating a certain state of mind, like compassion, we won’t get too far. In this way we can start to appreciate how precise and sophisticated meditation actually is; we can even call it a “science of mind.”

In Between Meditation Sessions

Tsongkhapa also points out that the time in between meditation sessions is also very important. He advises to read up on various scriptural texts dealing with what we’re meditating on. On the one hand, it will confirm our conviction that what we’re doing really is what Buddha taught and, on the other, it will give us inspiration by reading about what the great masters have accomplished. On top of this, Tsongkhapa says we need to build up our positive force and cleanse ourselves of negative forces, through purification practices.

I use the term “positive force” instead of the word “merit,” which I feel gives the wrong idea. Merit sounds as if you’re collecting points and if you reach a hundred, you win. What we’re doing is to actually build up a positive charge, where you get enough energy for things to work, like with a cell phone. So with our minds, we also need to use cleansing practices to help overcome mental blocks, where you feel like you just can’t understand anything. There can also be emotional blocks. Building up positive force and doing various purification practices enables us to break through these blocks so we can gain insight and understanding.

What does that mean on a practical level? On a practical level it means: when we’re trying to understand something, even in our work, and can’t understand it, we take a break. We go and try to do something helpful to others in one way or another. By doing that, then usually when you come back, your mind is in a more positive, uplifted state and with a more heightened sense of self-worth, rather than frustration, we’re usually able to understand a little bit better. So no matter who we are, there must be some activity that we can engage in that is beneficial to others, whether it is spending more time with our children, going to visit a sick older relative who’s lonely, whatever it is. Something positive is very important to do. Although there are many ritual practices that we can perform, a real life practice is much stronger.

Checking Our Progress

Most of us don’t have a personal teacher that we can check our progress with, but the lojong or mind-training teachings always say that we are the best witness to ourselves. We need to ask ourselves whether we’ve been able to concentrate well or not, or if we have a lot of mental wandering or not – no one else can judge this for us! All of the teachings and practices are intended for us to improve our own emotional states, for us to work on ourselves. So we’re the best judge to see if we’re still getting really angry, or if we’re angry less, and so on.

The principle that we need to remember is that life goes up and down, and so progress is never linear. It’s never going to simply get better and better each day. Until we become a liberated being, it’s going to be up and down. Even if we practice for a long time and normally don’t get angry, sometimes we’ll still get angry. But that’s no reason to be discouraged. On one hand, we have to work hard to improve ourselves, but on the other hand, not punish ourselves or feel guilty when you slip up. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that when estimating the progress we’ve made, we need to look at a period of five years, not just a week. If we look at how we dealt with things five years ago compared to now, then we can see clearly the progress we’ve made.


No special place is needed to meditate, just somewhere that is relatively quiet and clean, but even if this isn’t available, it’s fine. One of my friends lived in a tiny little apartment with her mother. There was basically one room, and it had the mother’s television and radio, and her mother would get upset if she tried to meditate or anything like that. Her only possibility was to meditate while sitting on the toilet. That’s where she did her practice every day, and it was fine. You don’t need candles or incense or any of that stuff – they’re just “things.” The crucial thing is what we’re doing with our minds, and meditation is practicing a certain state of mind, which is something that we can do anytime, anywhere. Some of the states of mind might even be easier to develop when we’re on the subway or a bus. When we want to develop patience, to see everyone as wanting to be happy and not wanting unhappiness, what better place than a crowded bus, rather than sitting alone in our room imagining people?

What’s important with meditation practice is that we do it every day without fail. You don’t forget to brush your teeth or go to the toilet, so you also shouldn’t forget to meditate. We can make it a steady part of our life, even if it’s just for five minutes a day. No matter who we are, we can all wake up five minutes earlier in the morning to fit it in. It doesn’t need to be some ordeal, instead it can add a great deal of stability – no mater how crazy the day ahead might be, you’ll always have this time to yourself that provides continuity.