There is no place to seek the mind;
it is like the footprints of the birds in the sky.
If you’ve ever taken a meditation workshop, you’ve probably learned specific instructions for what to focus on. Most teachers offer suggestions that direct your attention to your breath, a mantra, or some external object like a candle flame. The Buddha himself offered more than 40 objects of meditation, including the breath, various aspects of the physical body, sensations, mental experiences, and specific life experiences.
But truly the meditative state lies beyond such practices. Meditation is ultimately not something that we do, but is rather a state that arises when all “doing” is done with. Swami Satchidananda once said, “Meditation is an accident, and yoga practices make us accident prone.” But most traditions also speak of “methodless-methods” that are meant to drop us directly into that meditative state—variously called “bare attention,” “silent illumination,” “just sitting,” “Maha Mudra,” or simply “choiceless awareness.” Such “practices” encourage sitting as awareness itself, with no chosen focus, so that you maintain an evenness of attention on whatever arises in your awareness.
The great Buddhist Tantric master Tilopa (988-1069 CE) wrote in his “Song of Maha Mudra”:
The clouds that wander through the sky
Have no roots, no home; nor do the distinctive
Thoughts floating through the mind.
Once this is seen,
Rest at ease your body.
Giving not, nor taking,
Put your mind at rest.
Maha Mudra is like a mind that clings
As Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra (2:46-48) says about asana: It is stable and easeful, accompanied by the relaxation of effort and the arising of coalescence, revealing the body and the infinite universe as indivisible. Then one is no longer disturbed by the play of opposites.
But that is easier said than done. Not for nothing is the mind likened to a drunken monkey! It is easy to become caught in an ever-proliferating chain of thought. Even when you’re trying to focus on one object, a thought can arise, which leads to another, and yet another, until 15 minutes later, you wake up from some four-star daydream or sexual fantasy or fretful worry over unpaid bills!
There is a distinct but subtle difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought. It’s primarily a difference of “feeling tone,” the felt sense (physically and energetically) of experience. A thought you are aware of with bare attention—with neither grasping nor aversion—feels light; you sense distance between the thought and the awareness of it. With no reactivity to feed it, it arises like a bubble and eventually “pops” or “self-liberates.”
Conscious thinking feels heavier. Its obsessive, compulsive quality pulls you in and takes control of your consciousness. Choiceless awareness requires mindfulness, a mode that is accepting and nonreactive. You have a willingness to be with your lived experience as it actually is and not as you would like it to be. You don’t seek another state of being or distract yourself from your present situation.
Just dropping into such choiceless awareness without any methods for getting there is extremely difficult. The following meditation is designed to cultivate the stability, reflectivity, and resilient equanimity needed for choiceless awareness. The meditation is made up of three parts that can be practiced independently or combined into a graduated path.
The Mountain Meditation is the most concrete of the three. It cultivates stability and can help in dealing with anxiety and restlessness. Lake Meditation cultivates the quality of reflectivity that lessens the reactivity of the comparing and judging mind. And finally, Big Sky Meditation opens us to choiceless awareness.
Create a comfortable, stable, supported seated posture. If sitting on the floor, support your knees with pillows or blocks. Sit upright and close your eyes. Let your breath flow naturally, without manipulating it. Rest your attention on the rising and falling of your belly or chest.
Imagine a majestically tall mountain. Contemplate how solid and stable the mountain is throughout the changing seasons. At times the mountain may be clouded over, its peak covered in fog. Sometimes the mountain is assaulted with thunder, lightning, and heavy rains. Sometimes it rises into a clear blue sky or a few white puffy clouds. At times it is covered in snow, at times with lush foliage, and at other times it is barren. Throughout, it remains stable and unaffected by the changing weather or seasons. Let this stable quality of “mountainness” nourish your concentration and your ability to sit through all the varying experiences that arise while practicing this meditation.
Now feel your posture to be like a mountain. Breathing in, see yourself as a mountain; breathing out, feel stable. Some thoughts and emotions are like storms, others like sunshine. Your mind can be clouded over or clear and bright, but through it all, you can still sit solid.
Move your attention from the mountain to the lake. Crystal-clear, turquoise-hued lakes toward the peak of some mountains in the Himalayas are called “sky lakes” because they so perfectly reflect the sky above. Protected by the higher peaks and trees, the surface of such a lake is smooth and calm. You don’t need to visualize yourself as a lake. Rather, contemplate the lake and its quality of reflectivity. Notice how the water is translucent, allowing you to see into its depths. Notice how it is also as reflective as a mirror, so you can see your face and the sky above on its surface. As you imagine yourself looking into the surface of the water, notice how the water reflects only what is there, neither editing out nor adding in anything. The water reflects the dark, ominous storm clouds and the fluffy white clouds equally. When birds fly overhead, the water reflects them; yet once they are gone from the sky, it shows no trace of them.
When the waves (vritti) are calmed, the mind (citta) has this dual ability of the lake to be both translucent and reflective. Once your mind is stabilized, you can turn your attention to it. Imagining your mind to be as translucent and reflective as the sky lake may bring forth thoughts, feelings, and emotions, but you can simply reflect what arises without judging or comparing, and without editing out anything through aversion or denial. Perceptions of sound, smell, or touch may arise, and, free of grasping and pushing away, you can simply reflect. In this way, destructive or unwholesome patterns can be seen, so that their power over you is lessened. Attachments are loosened. Breathing in, see yourself as the water of the sky lake; breathing out, reflect.
Big Sky Mind
After a while, turn your attention from the surface of the lake toward the sky itself. Then imagine shifting your gaze from the reflections, the passing phenomena, to the sky within which they all arise and pass away. The sky is boundless, limitless. It contains everything that arises. The horizon is only a perceptual or conceptual boundary that can never be reached. Even on the cloudiest day, the sky is luminous above the clouds, pervasive, limitless, and free.
Awareness has the qualities of luminosity and limitlessness. It is present always, behind, between, and beyond all the ever-changing phenomena. Whenever you catch yourself identifying with the mental “clouds,” simply shift your identification from the clouds to the sky itself. Realize that what you’ve been seeking is what you already are and have always been! Big Sky Mind opens us to seeing that our true nature is this awareness within which all experience arises and passes away.