Chapter One: What This Book Offers You ONE WHAT THIS BOOK OFFERS YOU TSOKNYI RINPOCHE
I grew up in a village atmosphere, surrounded by a lot of love and care. I vividly remember as a small child repeatedly jumping onto and running off from the lap of my grandpa, who was wrapped in a dagam
, a big, warm meditation cloak. My grandpa just kept meditating and murmuring mantras while freely letting the rascal come and go. My grandpa radiated warmth, love, and peace, no matter what was happening around him.
I was born in Kathmandu to Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, a renowned Tibetan meditation master, and a Nepalese mother descended from a Tibetan family of meditators. My mother’s ancestors numbered a famous king of Tibet whose descendants settled in Nubri, a Nepali valley in the shadow of Mount Manaslu, the eighth-highest mountain in the world. I spent my early childhood in that remote mountainous region.
Both sides of my family included dedicated and accomplished meditators, including my father, my father’s grandmother, and her father, who was one of the legendary meditators of his time. Accomplishment in meditation generally means having passed through many stages of mind-training and becoming stable in wisdom and compassion. I was therefore privileged to be trained from childhood in meditation and nurtured in a meditative atmosphere.
At thirteen I was sent to a Tibetan refugee community in the Kangra Valley in northern India for formal Buddhist education. There I continued meditation training with several masters of the art, including yogis who practiced there in seclusion. And ever since, I’ve been fortunate in continuing to study with some of the foremost meditation masters of our times.
I started teaching Buddhism in my early twenties and have traveled the world since then, teaching meditation to tens of thousands of students on several continents. I have also continued to keep educating myself and to explore relevant scientific knowledge to the science of the mind. I attended several Mind & Life seminars where the Dalai Lama spoke with scientists, and I’ve taught meditation at the Mind & Life Summer Research Institute to graduate students and postdocs.
From the start of my meditation teaching my natural curiosity made me particularly interested in Western psychology, contemporary life, and the unique challenges modern people face. As a traveling teacher my lifestyle has meant ceaseless movement. Unlike many well-known Asian meditation teachers, I prefer to travel alone and anonymously, so I can observe and interact with people in spontaneous, authentic ways. I have spent a lot of time in airports, walking the streets of cities around the world, sitting in coffee shops, and, in general, people-watching.
I’ve spent decades with experts in psychology and science, and with friends and students around the world, trying to understand their mind-sets, struggles, and cultural pressures. I’ve gotten tutorials from several highly regarded psychotherapists, such as Tara Bennett-Goleman and John Welwood. With Tara (Daniel Goleman’s wife), we explored many psychological themes, particularly common dysfunctional emotional patterns, such as feelings of emotional deprivation and fear of abandonment, which she has written about in her book Emotional Alchemy
and elsewhere. John Welwood, a marital therapist and author, was a source of insight into relationship patterns as well as the concept of “spiritual bypassing,” the tendency to use spiritual practices, such as meditation, to avoid unhealed psychological wounds and overwhelming, troubling emotions. I’ve also learned a tremendous amount from my students, from talking with them about their lives, their relationships, and their spiritual practice.
From these sources, I learned about both my own neuroses, habitual patterns, and emotions and those of my students. This has informed my teaching approach as my understanding of the particular emotional and psychological challenges modern students face has grown. For example, how people can hide from psychological issues in their spiritual practice, as well as sensing the hidden power of our emotional patterns and relational wounding. Such insights have shaped the instructions offered in this book.
My approach as a teacher stems not just from this sensitivity to modern challenges in the emotional and psychological realms but also from my remaining dedicated to the possibility of transformation and awakening. I try to be faithful to the traditional deep wisdom I emerged from, but at the same time being up-to-date and innovative. This means trying to be open and frank in direct interaction with students, while addressing many levels of their tightness, wounding, and confusion at the same time.
When I first started teaching, I used a more traditional style, focusing on theory and emphasizing fine distinctions from traditional texts. Most students were well educated, intellectually grasping the meaning and asking sharp questions. I thought, Wow, these people are really smart! They should make quick progress
. But after a decade or more, something wasn’t feeling quite right. Students were “getting it” up in their heads but seemed stuck in the same emotional and energetic habit patterns year after year. This stuckness prevented them from progressing in their meditation practice.
I began to question whether the approach treasured so much by my tradition was actually touching students in the way intended. I pondered why students around the world were understanding the teachings but not able to embody them and deeply transform.
I suspected that the channels of communication among their minds, their feelings, and their bodies were blocked or strained. From the Tibetan viewpoint all these channels should be connected and flowing freely. Yet I saw that my students couldn’t integrate the understanding their intellects were capable of, because they couldn’t digest them at the level of the body and feelings. This led me to change how I teach meditation.
Now I focus first and foremost on healing and opening the channel between the mind and the feeling world, to prepare the student’s whole being. The techniques described here reflect this new approach, which I’ve honed for the past few decades. Although they emerge from decades of training with great meditation masters and my own meditation and teaching experience, these are not meant solely for Buddhists or “serious meditators.” Quite the contrary, they are designed to benefit anyone and everyone.
Nor are they antidotes to neuroses alone—they offer practical ways to deal with any sort of distressing thoughts and emotions that take us over repeatedly. In addition to fear, these can include aggression, jealousy, unbridled desire, and any other such obstacle to inner peace.
I’m passionate about sharing meditation in a way that is psychologically and emotionally relevant, practical, and accessible to people caught up in today’s world. We have precious little time to work with our minds and hearts, so the techniques need to benefit us here and now.
I grew up in Stockton, California, a town about ninety minutes east of the San Francisco Bay Area. At the time, I experienced the place as Norman Rockwell–ish, a peaceful, Middle American town. Of late, though, Stockton has grown a very different reputation: the first city in America to go bankrupt, as well as the site of an experiment in giving impoverished citizens a monthly stipend—and a hotbed of gangs.
It struck me early in childhood that my friends’ houses had almost no books, while my own had thousands. Both my parents were college teachers and valued education as the best path to life success. Just as they had before me, I took school seriously and worked hard at it.
That got me into a college on the East Coast, and from there to Harvard to study for a PhD in clinical psychology. But my education path took a sharp right turn when I received a predoctoral traveling fellowship to India, where I spent two years studying—as I told my sponsors—psycho-ethnology, or “Asian models of the mind.” Actually I found myself plunging into the study of meditation.
I had started meditating as an undergrad, and in India enthusiastically undertook a series of ten-day retreats. I found a state of inner peace in those retreats and continued the practice when I returned stateside. Over the decades as a meditator I’ve encountered a series of marvelous teachers, and today I find myself a student of Tsoknyi Rinpoche.
My dissertation at Harvard was on meditation as an intervention in stress, and I have followed the science of contemplative practice closely ever since. My career path took me into science journalism, eventually to the New York Times
, where I worked on the science desk. My core skill in this line of work continues to be delving into what scientific journals report and translating those findings in a way that ordinary folks without any special training can understand and find interesting.
That led me to write a book about the scientific findings of meditation with an old friend from my grad school days, Richard Davidson, now a world-renowned neuroscientist based at the University of Wisconsin. Our book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Brain, Body, and Mind
, draws on the soundest studies of meditation practice. I’ve returned to that well of contemplative science in my contribution to this book, reviewing the findings from the lab that speak to the practices Tsoknyi Rinpoche shares in each chapter.
What This Book Offers You
Mindfulness has been sweeping through our businesses, schools, yoga centers, medical centers, and far beyond, penetrating the distant corners of Western society. While that respite from life’s cares understandably appeals to many, mindfulness is just one of many tools in deeper meditation practice. The practice path we detail in this book covers basic mindfulness but also goes far beyond. We tell you what to do next, after you’ve started mindfulness—as well as what to do at the outset to disarm the deep emotional habits that often propel people to.
This book helps you with widespread obstacles to focusing we face in that modern life—not just our ever-present phones and increasingly hectic schedules but, even more, the destructive thoughts like doubt and cynicism, and emotional habits like self-criticism that preoccupy us. The early chapters help readers allay the two problems most beginning meditators complain about: (1) My mind is wild, I can’t find calm
, and (2) My most troubling thoughts just keep coming back.
In an adaptation of meditation instructions to work with these two obstacles, Tsoknyi Rinpoche starts with “dropping,” where the meditator cuts through persistent thoughts, and the “handshake,” where meditators learn to make friends with their most troubling mental patterns.
These practices, typically missing from standard mindfulness instructions, are invaluable. Many who begin mindfulness abandon the method, frustrated and upset that the thoughts they were trying to overcome continue to bedevil them. This book deals with how to handle such thoughts head-on with love and acceptance.
What’s more, several of the methods shared here have not been made widely available before. They are familiar only to Rinpoche’s students but so far not to a wider public.
This book is for you:
- if you have been considering starting meditation and are not sure why you should or how to begin;
- if you are meditating but wonder why or what to do next to progress;
- or if you already are a convinced meditator and want to help someone you care about get going, by giving them this book.