Interview with Mingyur Rinpoche

Study Buddhism visited Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche during his teachings at Palpung Changchub Dargyeling in Wales, to find out about the power of the mind, the use of awareness in everyday life, and powerful methods to overcome anxiety and low self-esteem.
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I’m in the beautiful valleys of Wales passing wild mountain horses and sheep upon sheep, while being driven through small country roads by the Dharma artist Tashi Mannox. We are on our way to Palpung Changchub Dargyeling, a Dharma centre in the Karma Kagyu tradition set on the doorstep of the incredibly stunning Brecon Beacons National Park, to meet a renowned meditation master: Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is the son of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, considered one of the greatest Dzogchen masters of his time. Drawn to a life of contemplation from an early age, Mingyur Rinpoche often meditated in the caves that surrounded his village on the border of Nepal and Tibet, and by his teens, he had already completed several traditional meditation retreats. During a three-year retreat at the age of thirteen, he overcame the panic attacks that had plagued him throughout his childhood. Then, in 2011, Mingyur Rinpoche left his monastery in Bodh Gaya and spent over four years as a wandering yogi, roaming throughout the Himalayas.

Mingyur Rinpoche is the abbot of Tergar Osel Ling Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, and Tergar Rigzin Khachö Targyé Ling Monastery in Bodh Gaya, India. In addition to his extensive background in meditation and Buddhist philosophy, he has a lifelong interest in psychology and science, and is an advisor to the Mind and Life Institute, participating in the ongoing studies of the neural and physiological effects of meditation.

These days, he travels widely telling his story and helping people overcome their problems with the magic of meditation.

Study Buddhism: As a child, you suffered from severe anxiety and panic attacks. In the West, panic attacks are often managed with drugs, but you chose to manage them through meditation. Could you share with us your experience with anxiety, and how you’ve overcome it?  

Mingyur Rinpoche: When I was young, I had a lot of feelings of panic and panic attacks. I tried so many things to get rid of my panic in my own way but it didn't help. Then I asked my father to teach me meditation. He told me, "Don't try to block it, don't try to get rid of the panic, don't try to make your panic surrender. Just let your panic be, and connect with your awareness."

So first, I connected with my awareness through my breath, knowing that I am breathing in, and knowing that I’m breathing out. Slowly, I connected my awareness to my body, the sensations within the body from head to toe. The nature of the sensation is knowingness, which is awareness. Within that awareness, bad sensations are OK, good sensations are also OK.

When I feel panic, I have a sensation. When I look at the sensation, then the panic isn't solid anymore. It's like a log floating on the ocean. The ocean is the awareness, the log is the panic.

My father told me that there are two important causes of panic. One is aversion. I panic about having panic: I don't like my panic! The second is craving, the craving to be free from this panic. These two are like an accelerator and a brake. When you drive a car, you need an accelerator and a brake. Without these two, you cannot drive.

Underlying all of the anxiety are these two things. My father said, "Don't try to block the panic. Just welcome it, let it be, and connect with awareness." So I did this and it really helped. But still, I had the habit of trying to get rid of my panic.

Then, when I was thirteen, I went into a long-term retreat. I thought, if I join a retreat, then my laziness won't appear. Because when I was young, I was normally lazy. I liked the idea of meditation, but not the practice of meditation! So I went into retreat, and my laziness followed me. Surprisingly! Not only that, but then my laziness and panic became good friends and my panic became worse. Then I thought, "OK! From now on, I will not try to get rid of my panic, I will learn how to live with it. My entire life, even if panic is there, it is OK. I'm going to use it as a teacher, as a support for my awareness."

So that is what I did. I used my panic as a support for my awareness. This means that when panic comes, I'm aware of the sensation of the panic. Then I can see awareness. The essence of panic is knowing, actually. Knowing is awareness. I did that, and after a few days, I had these symptoms: my heart was shaking, I had tightness there, I was feeling dizzy, but I felt quite happy. When panic came, I felt like it was exciting. Great, good! So finally, panic became my friend, my teacher. A few weeks later, something happened: my panic went! 

In our lives we have a lot of challenges, problems, obstacles, a lot of things. I use the problem or obstacle as a support for awareness, as a support for love and compassion. For example, when I feel panic coming on, I meditate on my breath. Breathing in, breathing out. I meditate on the panic. When panic comes, there are a lot of sensations in your body. Be aware of these sensations. When we face panic, if we're aware of the sensations, the sensations are not scary anymore.

For example, if you see the river, that means you're out of the river. So if you see the panic, then you're not in the panic. Still, the river continues, and the panic might continue, but it's okay, it's exciting, and it may become a cause for maintaining awareness. Then you will develop awareness, and that awareness is bigger than panic.

Of course, some people say, "The mind is just chemicals or neurons. If there is something wrong with the chemicals, then I will just take medicine to fix it." What can we say about this? Many scientists nowadays do research and of course we can take medicine.

In the meditative tradition we believe that the body and mind support each other. The body is like a horse, and the mind is like the rider. So taking medication helps. But if we have problems and we take medication, it serves us only temporarily. The problem will come back again.

But if you really work with your mind and meditate, and your mental problems are cured by this, then they will never come back. This cure is long-lasting. It's a real cure.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche meditating in nature, courtesy of Facebook/mingyur.rinpoche
Your story is so interesting, and I’m sure it’s very relatable to a lot of people. But the way that you dealt with your panic, that of befriending it, sort of goes against everything that comes naturally to us! These days, aside from anxiety and panic attacks, I know so many people that suffer from low self-esteem, exacerbated by unrealistic life expectations set by social media influencers. What then, would be the antidote to these kinds of self-esteem issues?

It is true. Nowadays, many people have a lot of self-esteem issues and anxiety. I think there are two antidotes that are important: appreciation and gratitude. 

What my father told me when I was young is that everybody has a basic innate goodness and potential. One time, I remember, I was with my father on a mountain in Kathmandu in a hermitage where my father had a small room with a huge window. From the window you could see a nunnery which had a lot of dogs. On the other side of the room, there was a beautiful shrine with a beautiful Buddha image.

One day we looked through the window and saw many dogs down there, and my father said, "They have a basic innate goodness." My father said that the nature of the dogs and my nature and the nature of the beautiful Buddha were all the same.

At first, I thought, "Hmm, my nature and the dogs' nature might be the same, but how could my nature be the same as the Buddha’s? I don't believe this!" I thought it was just sweet talk by my father to try to make me happy.

Eventually I received a lot of teachings, and I tried to appreciate and recognize our Buddha nature. There were a lot of things I discovered within myself. Amazing!

Also, many scientists say that if we have ten qualities within ourselves, one negative and nine positive, normally we'll look only at that one negative quality and exaggerate it, not seeing the nine positive qualities within us. So my advice is, every day you keep a journal. Every day, appreciate five things in your life. Just simple things: 

“I'm breathing, wonderful!”

“I'm having a nice meal, wonderful!”

“I have friends and family, wonderful!” 

Just five things, every day, just write them down. I think that really helps to really appreciate our lives.

So, this realization you had – that our true nature, and the true nature of a dog and the Buddha, are of the same essence – can really help those of us struggling with self-esteem issues? Is it due to seeing reality and our true potential in a different light?

What is reality, and what is our true nature? Actually, these two come together. The real reality is what we call our true nature. We all have a basic goodness. Everybody has awareness, which is free, genuine, peaceful, and pure. Not only that, we have love and compassion. There's wisdom, there are capabilities, there are skills, talents, so many things within us. Each one is unique and we can almost do anything we want because there's a lot of potential within us.

But the problem is that we don't recognize it. We don't know how to connect with our potential, or the basic innate goodness within us. This is reality. How do we connect with our true nature? Through recognition. In the meditation tradition, they teach us how to connect with it. For example, how can we connect with our awareness? We begin with the breath, you know your breath, awareness here means knowing, pure knowing, and that pure knowing can be with thoughts or without thoughts, good thoughts, bad thoughts, positive emotions, negative emotions. None of these can change our awareness.

There may be a bad storm in space but that doesn't change the nature of space. A blue sky with the sun shining also doesn't change the nature of space, doesn’t make it better. A blue sky with the sun shining is like a positive emotion or thought, the thunderstorm is like a negative thought or emotion. Normally we get lost in the clouds, lost in the storm. But if we know how to connect with awareness itself, it's of great benefit.

When I was young, I had a lot of storms or very strong panic, and I always got lost in the panic. But then, as I learned how to connect with awareness itself, I allowed panic to just be within the awareness. So I had panic, but still I had awareness. For me, the awareness was more than the panic, more than the emotions. Not only that, there was love and compassion. We all have this love and compassion 24-hours a day, but we don't recognize it. We have wisdom within us also, 24-hours. We just need to know how to be with them, we have no need to make anything, it's just there. We just have to recognize it.

At first, the Buddha was like us, a regular person, full of confusion and suffering. But Buddha began to recognize his true nature, what we call "Buddha nature." We believe it is the essence of all of us, it's pure, free, already enlightened. But we need to recognize it.

The Buddha recognized it through awareness, compassion, and wisdom. When we fully recognize our innate goodness, then all of the enlightened qualities can manifest. Boundless wisdom, boundless love and compassion, boundless enlightened activities. That is what we call a Buddha, and that state is what we call enlightenment.

I know that a lot of anxiety and self-esteem issues arise from a desire to be successful. Social media, which usually only shows the positive, wonderful parts of life, really pushes a distorted perception of success. To you, what is a successful life?  

First, what does it mean to be successful? It depends on what you're expecting, and what the meaning of success is to you. 

It could be that for some people, success is related to material objects. For some people, it could be peace. For some people, just their interests. Some people, just having simple things.

For me, the most important meaning of success is something meaningful. Something which is a benefit to everybody, to others. Something which is connected with your heart, your inner self, which is love, compassion, wisdom, awareness. It's something where you don't feel any conflicts in what you do, and so whatever you achieve, you feel happy.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche in the Himalayas, courtesy of Facebook/mingyur.rinpoche

Whatever you do, eventually it becomes more powerful, more influential, with more achievements. Even if you do a small job, if it's connected with your heart, I think this is really one of the measurements of whether there is success or not. If you don't like something but you do it, you may become successful, but after a certain level, there may be a lot of conflict in your life. You will suffer.

You can make a lot of money, but you're not happy. But if something is connected with your heart, whatever you do, at the beginning it may be a little slow, but eventually there'll be much greater achievements. So, success depends on you. 

Apart from the feelings of gratitude and appreciation that you mentioned earlier, and the method of putting our hearts into everything we do that you just talked about, what else does Buddhism teach us about how to live a happy and joyful life? 

One of the essences of Buddhist practice, of the Buddhist teachings, is meditation: what I call "awareness." We should learn awareness. Awareness is our fundamental nature. Everybody has this awareness, which is free, present, genuine, and pure. So first, awareness. Second, love and compassion. Third, wisdom. You can start that way – one, two, three – to enter into Buddhist practice.

Today, Buddhism is really important, because right now, the world is becoming more convenient. Material-wise, there's been a lot of development. Based on scientific data, it's said that now we have the lowest violence rate in human history. But mentally, we have a lot of fear and anxiety. This fear and anxiety isn't helped by material things. So for me, if I really want to be happy, then I think Buddhism is of real benefit. It changed my life, it transformed my life. 

I am here today because of Buddhist meditation practice. For me, the idea of living joyfully is that first we need to find out what joy or happiness is. That sense of contentment, the sense of joy which comes from within yourself and doesn't need to totally depend on outside circumstances. How to find this? For me, it's through awareness, through appreciation, through gratitude, through the practice of love and compassion.

So, we need to start with meditation, with awareness, and you shared with us how this helped you to overcome anxiety. As a world-renowned meditation master, you have completed many long meditation retreats and have taught tirelessly around the world. For those who are new to meditation, where do we start?

How can we connect with awareness? It's quite difficult, because it's so easy!

What we call awareness in the Buddhist world is like space – free, present, genuine, pure. At the beginning, we can just use some simple object, such as the breath, to connect with awareness.

How to do it? You just know that you're breathing. Right now, you are breathing, right? So if you know that you're breathing, that is awareness. Awareness about the breath.

But many people misunderstand meditation, they think that meditation is, "Think of nothing! Only breathe! Stop all the thoughts and emotions, concentrate!" Or, they think it's about blissing out, peace, openness. These are all misunderstandings of meditation.

The main thing is to just be naturally with the breath, and then whatever thoughts or emotions come, let them come, let them go. As long as you don't forget your breath, anything is OK. Whatever thoughts or emotions come to your mind, it doesn't matter. Everything is allowed, it's completely free. 

The starting point is to be aware, be with your breath. Then, step-by-step, you go back to your body, then you go back to your mind, then you see the innate quality of the mind.

In the end, you see with full awareness the full picture. You can be with space. It doesn't mean you have to stop thoughts and emotions. Space is allowed to have clouds. Whatever type of cloud is OK. Beautiful clouds, ugly clouds, storms or a blue sky with the sun shining, it's the same. Then life becomes wonderful!

For people like me, who are in no way advanced meditation practitioners, how can meditation help in our everyday lives? 

About six or seven years ago I joined a scientific research project involving meditators and non-meditators in the Waisman Center laboratory at the University of Wisconsin. There was a box that they put on your wrist, and the box produced hot water. Then they would say, "After ten seconds, your wrist will burn," and they monitored the brain with an EEG and other tools.

What they found is that when the meditators heard that their wrist would burn after ten seconds, their minds were still calm. When the heat came, the heat became very strong, yet there was not much rumination. At the same time, the non-meditators, as soon as they heard that their wrists would burn in ten seconds: boom! There was a lot of rumination, "Oh, I'm going to burn, what should I do? Maybe I will get a blister.” Even after the heat was gone, they were still ruminating.

It's not only that we bring past bad experiences into the present, we also jump into the future, we worry too much about the future and we lose the present moment. We cannot enjoy it. Therefore, we’ll have less creativity, and less clarity to see what reality is.

Like when the heat comes, we are overwhelmed, and cannot see it very clearly. Similarly, we cannot see the present clearly. Meditation really helps to bring not just peace and calm, but a mind that is pliable and workable. So your mind becomes very useful.

I’m sure most of us would like to have a useful mind! Can you explain, from the Buddhist perspective, what the mind actually is?

The mind is thinking, feeling. Who is asking what the mind is? The mind is asking. So, normally we say that the mind is like the boss. The mind guides us. Whatever we see, whatever we experience, our mind is judging. Based on our past experiences, based on our beliefs, based on whatever we've studied, we judge, "This is good, this is bad, this is right, this is wrong." And after we judge, we experience.

For example, panic is fear, a great source of suffering. But if we really welcome the panic, like how I made my panic my friend, then after some time, we don't feel that panic is a bad thing. Watching the panic helped me to connect with my awareness and my feeling towards it became kind of positive.

Normally in our life, we have positive or negative, suffering or happiness. It's all about our mental state. Normally I joke about this. Some people want to go to the gym and they're fighting for a parking space. If they cannot find a parking space next door to the gym, and they have to park far away from the gym, they complain. Each step is suffering. "Today I have such bad luck, this bad guy took my space." And then they go to the gym, and what do they do when they go to the gym? They're running on the machine. And now, each step is happiness: "This is good, I've spent a lot of money on the gym, I will burn calories and lose fat, and it's good for my lungs and skin!" Walking is the same! Outside walking becomes a cause of suffering, and walking on the machine, a cause of happiness.

This is how our mind makes the world. 

There’s a plethora of scientific research, let alone what the Buddha said, about the physical and mental benefits of a regular meditation practice. But I know from my own experience, and perhaps because of my own laziness, that it can be really hard to make meditation a habit. I tend to start for a while and then stop for even longer. What advice would you give to someone like me?

Sometimes we're really inspired by a particular practice, a particular meditation, a particular project, but after some time we don’t continue with it. We become bored.

In Buddhism, we have what we call "view, meditation, application." In science, or in psychology language, it's what they call "ABC.” “A” means “affect.” “B” means “behavior.” “C” means “cognition.”

Cognition and view have the same meaning, it's about understanding. Affect and meditation both have the same meaning, they have to come from the heart. And behavior and application are the same.

If we really want to transform ourselves, cognitively we are inspired, we understand. If we practice, we feel very good at the heart level, at the emotional level. Therefore, C (cognition) and A (affect) are good. But the problem is B – behavior, the application level. This is why we need to develop habits. We need to see the force of our habits. 

If you want to build up a new habit, don't promise too much first. If a train comes with great force, it's impossible to turn toward the right direction. The same way, you have to slow down first. Then you change the route a little bit, and after that you can go faster and faster.

First try to set up a formal meditation practice, just a very short one. To develop a new habit will take 30 days. If you survive 15 minutes of meditation a day for 30 days, then it becomes easy. It's already the start of a new habit.

After three months, that habit becomes solid. This building up of new habits is very important, that's first. Second, we need creativity. When we practice meditation, we need to change the meditation techniques. This week, be aware of the breath, but after some time of keeping awareness of the breath, we get bored. So we change it. Stay aware of the sensations within the body. If it is “great, fresh!” we feel we have a special connection with the awareness of the body. But a few days later, we are bored! How to stay aware of our sensations? Change it into listening to sounds, for example.

So, we need to be creative ourselves to manage the ups and downs of our meditation practice! That is great advice. Does it work the other way around too? How does meditative awareness influence our creativity? 

One of the most important things in our lives is what we call "impermanence." Life is changing but normally we have a fixed mind. We want to believe that everything is solid and permanent, which obscures the development of creativity.

When you are open to just living life, which is changing and impermanent, you will open up your mind and your heart and that is good for creativity. Especially if you rest in meditative awareness, then it shows an innate quality within us, which is creativity. New ideas may come. If your brain is full of junk, like a hard-drive, full of viruses and junk, there's no space for new ideas. 

When our minds are cleaner and more connected with pure awareness, then there's more space for creativity.

If we meditate, first you have to be aware of your breath, be aware of sensations. Eventually your mind is with the awareness itself in the natural state of the mind. Then, creativity, wisdom and everything will come spontaneously, especially if you want to develop those things. Your motivation is a key factor. If you want to be a scholar and you meditate, then the potential of your scholarly qualities will develop spontaneously, in a more effortless way. If you want to make art, rest in awareness. Whatever you feel, just explore it. Don't control it. 

Sometimes we may forget awareness, so we try to go back to it again. At the beginning, it's not so easy, because you're new to it. Then after some time, it really spontaneously opens new doors.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche leading a group meditation session, courtesy of Facebook/mingyur.rinpoche

If you want to involve meditation with art, I think first we should develop the motivation, "I want to practice art and meditation together, to benefit myself, of course my family and friends, and all beings, so that they're able to connect with their true nature and be free." This kind of motivation is really important.

After that you can create this by resting in awareness. Within that state, whatever your heart tells you, whatever your intuition tells you, just explore whatever you do – painting, creating, sculpture, whatever – just be with it. And this spontaneous creativity may come, and that leads to more creativity.

You mentioned already that you were involved in some scientific studies on meditation. You have a keen interest in science and studying the mind both through a Buddhist and a Western lens, and you’re also an advisor at the Mind and Life Institute too. In your experience, where do Buddhist and Western schools of psychology meet and diverge?

Actually, if I were not Mingyur Rinpoche, and if I had a completely different life, maybe I'd become a scientist! I was very interested in science when I was young. 

I've had the great opportunity to meet many Western psychologists and social scientists and neuroscientists, like Francisco Varela, who came to meet my father to learn meditation.

Actually many people believe that Buddhism is a form of psychology. So, what are the differences? The main difference for me is that Buddhism really looks into our basic, true nature at a fundamental level.

We believe in love and compassion, and that even in meditation, there needs to be a motivation not only to help oneself, but to benefit everyone else as well. In Western psychology, there's a lot of study of and detail about perception, memory, and how all of these connect, but the fundamental motivation is just to gather knowledge and then the therapy is just to benefit oneself.

In Buddhism, we have a path: as we practice and gain experiences we have an unlimited potential to grow. But in Western psychology, there are some limitations. There's no real step-by-step path, though actually, it can also be really beneficial. 

I think the deeper answer might be a little different. In Buddhism, we go beyond concepts. The final destination of the practice is to use the conceptual mind to connect with awareness, your inner, innate goodness, and in the end you go beyond concepts, beyond subject and object.

Western science has discovered a lot of great things that bring a lot of benefit right now, but they haven't yet studied going beyond concepts. That is why Western scientists can gain a lot from Buddhist psychology.

I think when we discuss, we see a lot of collaboration with each other. There are many instances when we're talking about the same thing, in Western psychology and Buddhist meditative philosophy, we are talking about the same thing, but using different terminology, coming from a different perspective. But now a lot of these things are coming closer and closer.

Thank you, Rinpoche, for sharing your personal experience and such beneficial antidotes to many of today’s most pressing issues.