On mind protection
From the archives: How the ancient art of lojong helped me through a family crisis
Dear friends of The Stream!
I crafted this newsletter a couple of years ago, then promptly forgot about it. For all you six people who signed up and never heard from me again (you know who you are, and hopefully you are reading this) my great apologies. And thank you, for actually subscribing.
This past week, it’s occurred to me I should bring the thing back to life. Let’s call it the de-thawing of The Stream as we move into winter. Today, I wanted to share this piece of writing that came flying out of me in 2017. I’m sharing it because this past week, I was lucky to start teaching a new meditation class series - and it’s focused on the Buddhist poem I reference in this blog post.
It’s about a time where my husband and I were hit by deep suffering, and the inner transformation this evoked.
December 6, 2017:
Two weeks ago, at 5:15pm the day before Thanksgiving, my husband Tim had a major accident. For those of you who are friends with me on Facebook, you may have read what I posted the following morning:
Thanksgiving Day: I am grateful for the woman with the calm and kind voice on the 911 call, who told me what to do. To the paramedics who appeared minutes later and carried Tim onto a stretcher, down rain-covered steps and into the ambulance. I am grateful to all the drivers I saw on the highway as I followed behind the flashing red and blue lights. To every single driver that pulled aside to let the ambulance pass.
I am grateful to the doctor and nurses, to that entire building full of people trained in caring for humans that we found ready and waiting to help. The young doctor who did the MRA scan and found most of the ribs on Tim's left side broken but miraculously the lungs full, miraculously the inner organs unaffected.
I am grateful to the Family of Morins and Tyrrells who texted, called, said they’d do anything, and a global community of sangha jewels who sent Buddha’s blessings, mantras of protection. I’m grateful to my teacher for teaching me how to sit and hold love in my heart and know that life is simply about these moments. How developing wisdom and compassion and helping those in need really is the real meaning of our lives.
And now home, with Tim by my side.
In the two weeks since that accident, I have met my Dharma practice in a way I've never met it before. And by this I mean that my Dharma and meditation practice has come to life in a new way.
When things like this accident occur in life, when our sense of normalcy and stability falls away, we can become terrified. Everything we thought we knew about the parameters of our days, changes. It's easy in these moments to become scared, to want to run away, to sit down and weep.
In the past two weeks, there have been so many challenges. The intense pain my husband has felt. The numerous times we've had to bundle him into a car in the freezing cold and drive down to Portland to find a doctor. There's been that dizzying moment of modern American life, when it feels like there isn't a safety net below you. There's just you, and the corporations.
In these moments, it's easy for the mind to freak out.
The first one, I don't remember what it was about, but my mind was starting to move in the direction of worry. I was lying there in bed in the middle of the night. I could feel every pore in my body tighten. It felt like the wolves of stress were starting to circle and pace around my mind.
But what occurred next was remarkable. Words started to speak to me. Literally, words began to ring out within my mind, the words of the Bodhisattva Langri Tangpa, an 11th century Buddhist master from Tibet:
"With the intention to attain
The ultimate, supreme goal
That surpasses even the wish-granting jewel,
May I constantly cherish all living beings."
This is the first verse from his poem Eight Verses of Training the Mind (Tibetan: Lojong Tsig Gyema) a poem I've been attempting to memorize in my Buddhist study program. We've been studying this poem for the past couple of years, reciting it aloud each week.
As I lay in bed that night, the poem spoke to me. All I needed to do was listen. And my mind changed in that moment. It switched from negative to positive, like a light came on.
I got up out of bed, walked into my study, turned on the light, got that book off the bookshelf, sat down, opened it and allowed its truth and beauty, its courageous strength, to speak to me.
The poem is all about how to transform difficulty into the path to enlightenment. It is a famous text in the lojong tradition of ancient India and Tibet. "Lojong" translates as "mind training" and these teachings are extraordinarily relevant for modern, challenging times. They arose in India when leprosy ravaged regions. They're about building resilience and the highest of all human states, enlightenment, from the raw material of adversity. It is about taking the most difficult elements of human life, and using it to train in becoming our best possible selves, awakening our potential.
Meet it with love, we are encouraged. Meet it with patient acceptance and compassion. Transform this. Use this. If you let it, this could be your greatest teacher.
There have been quite a few moments like this over the past couple of weeks, when the lines that I've studied have come in to help me. I've been moving towards panic, and suddenly one of the teachings I've learned has appeared like a lightbulb in the mind, conveying its wisdom—utterly illuminating my mind and pulling me into peace and space and possibility.
And the key realization I've been having is this: That meditation practice is all about mind protection. That's what the word "Dharma" means. It's a Sanskrit word that means "protection" and it's taken me 14 years of practice to understand why.
Meditation is about learning to cultivate powerful, positive new habits within the mind. It's about teaching the mind how to move out of the tangle of pain and suffering and into love, acceptance and positivity, again and again. We train like this, day in, day out.
Why? Because when the crisis hits, when adversity slams on your kitchen door and takes up a seat at the family dinner table, those words, those trainings, those impulses towards wisdom and compassion, are there for you.
All that practice now functions as your greatest protector; to lift you up again. To pull you back onto your feet. So that you can face the light again. So that you can be there to love others and look after them when they need it most.
So that you can use it all to become a better human being.
Photo credit: Pixabay, via CCO
Wisdom credit: All the Buddhist wisdom comes from my Spiritual teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. All mistakes are my own!
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