The fifth paramita in our six part series, Dhyana Paramita, is about staying steady and focused no matter what life throws at us.
The first time I tried bouldering I felt tense and on edge. I struggled to trust I would be okay if I fell. Worried thoughts swirled in my mind – “I can’t do it”, “this could hurt” and “I’m too weak”.
I did indeed fall – many times! But it didn’t hurt. And over time I got stronger and more nimble. Gradually, I learned to let go of all the worrisome and distrusting thoughts and focus on one move at a time. This makes bouldering a smoother, calmer experience.
Like with bouldering, we all take figurative falls during life, we get caught up in worry, distrust for our lives, and wish things were another way. Doing this results in an unnecessarily edgy and rough experience. There’s another way.
There’s an art to bouldering, to ensuring a smooth, steady climb, and in a similar way there’s an art to staying stable and focused no matter what life throws at us. That art is cultivated through the fifth paramita – the perfection of meditation.
Stable as a mountain
The Sanskrit word dhyana means meditation. It is this word that became the Chinese word ch’an, which became the Japanese word zen. Both terms refer to concentrated meditation or mindfulness that is both effortless and balanced.
Dhyana implies a mind uncluttered with thoughts, circular and digressive thinking. The Tibetan word for dhyana is samten, which means “stable awareness”. A woman free from a cluttered mind, whose mental processing is stabilized, is like a mountain – she cannot be moved regardless of anything, no matter how fierce the storm blowing around her.
This quality of being unmovable is essential for an aspiring Bodhisattva to cultivate. With this quality one has the necessary stability and groundedness to serve all living beings – the purpose of the Bodhisattva. The Six Paramitas, in this sense, are qualities of heart that guide the would-be Bodhisattva and indicate how she is doing on her path.
Remembering to return again and again
The Sanskrit word for mindfulness is smrti. This word is interesting – it means more than simply being attentive. It also means “remembering”. It suggests we remember to return again and again to the present moment and the focus of our meditation, for example the breath at the tip of the nose and the sensations appearing and disappearing in the body.
We return again, and again, and again, endlessly. This is dhyana. We don’t force the mind to focus on the breath in a severe, brutal way. Instead, we gently and patiently, with kindness, return again and again every time we notice we have become distracted.
This process of returning gradually reduces our level of distraction, helping us to become present and grounded. This is essential for the spiritual journey. Otherwise we become victim to our whims and desires. Meditation shines a light on our habits and thoughts, and how they deceive us. This awareness weakens their force.
Off the cushion, into the world
Dhyana, crucially, is a quality that enriches our post-meditation life. It gives us presence of mind, grace and composure in body, mind and speech. This paramita, as a living quality inside us, allows us to stay synced with our purpose – caring and nurturing our spiritual journey, while being a good friend to everyone we meet.
When we walk down the street, we are mindful of our footsteps, and of the world around us. We are in there here and now, which means we can be responsive to what arises in the moment. When we make tea, we make tea. When we wait for a train, we breathe in peace and calm, we breathe out peace and calm.
This meditative awareness or mindfulness gives us a smooth ride. That provides the stable ground from which we can set about supporting others.
The first step to generate Dhyana Paramita, is to cultivate stillness, shamata. We do this by maintaining a formal meditation practice. We sit out butts down on a daily basis, and practice returning again and again to our method.
The late master Sheng-yen, a universally respected Ch’an teacher, gave the example of a snow globe as a metaphor for the practice of meditation. When one picks up and shakes a snow globe, the white fragments inside chaotically dart around, obscuring the scene. Set the snow globe down, and eventually all the fragments settle and the scene becomes clear and unobscured.
By sitting ourselves down regularly to meditate, our mind eventually slows and settles. It might be difficult to begin with, because of all the thoughts darting around, but with practice stillness will become natural. Once the body is relaxed and mind settled, we can apply the insight, or vipassana to our meditation practice. Shamata and vipassana, calming and seeing, are practiced together.
On the yoga mat
Our yoga practice is another excellent place we can cultivate dhyana. However, it must be truly mindful. If we just bust out our usual vinyasa flow sequence on autopilot, getting our daily workout, we won’t be cultivating dhyana.
Yoga is a contemplative practice. Contemplation means observing closely. To achieve this on the mat, we need to slow down and look deeply. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, from early Buddhism, provide valuable means of contemplation to cultivate dhyana, and they can easily be applied to our asana practice.
Mindfulness of the body
Pay close attention to your breath. Take time before you start moving to connect with your breath. Then observe the inner landscape of the body. Be aware of how the sensations come and go. Observe the inner landscape of the body shifting as you practice – sitting, lying, standing, and moving. Have clear awareness of the body from within in each posture.
Mindfulness of feeling tone
As you practice various asanas, do feelings that are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral arise? For example, when you practice dandasana is there a mildly unpleasant feeling that seems to come with it? This might appear as resistance or aversion. Notice how you react to each of the three feeling tones.
Mindfulness of mental states
Observe any emotions present as you come to your mat. Maybe you feel rushed, and feel impatient to get your practice over with. Maybe you feel lethargic and heavy. Or you might notice a positive emotion, such as bliss. Whatever you observe, note it, but don’t get distracted by it. Stay in the here and now.
Mindfulness of Dharmas (phenomena)
This one is too much to explain here. But in a nutshell, it is about contemplating reality. For example, one contemplates the Five Aggregates – form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness – and sees how things in the world are not as solid as they ordinarily appear.
One step at a time – my challenge
Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet. – Thich Nhat Hanh
After reading this post take time for the rest of the week to really bring your full, kindly attention to your footsteps. Slow down, put all the thinking aside, and absorb your awareness into each sweet footstep. Set aside five minutes a day just to walk mindfully. Notice how this transforms your experience.
You’ll be on your way to a smoother, steadier journey!