Same Old Raccoon

August 2008

Lama Norlha Rinpoche, when he teaches meditation, sometimes illustrates his instructions with a classic example: If we become accustomed to sitting in meditation with a spaced-out, blank mind, it is said that we are sowing seeds for rebirth as a hibernating animal. The raccoon, says Rinpoche (via his ace translator, Lama Jamdron), disappears into its den in the late fall, and when it re-emerges in the spring: same old raccoon!

When we sit on our cushion or in our chair, our mind should be relaxed, much like the raccoon enjoying its rest after an action-packed summer. But, unlike the raccoon, we should not actually be sleeping—in the midst of our relaxation, our mind should also be very alert, tuned in to our object of meditation and aware of every passing thought. Otherwise, we are wasting our time, and might as well be taking a nap or watching a “Full House” rerun.

I’ve read that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche instructed students to meditate as if they had a snake on their lap. During my years in New Hampshire, driving on icy roads provided another apt analogy. In either case—at least assuming Trungpa Rinpoche was talking about a poisonous snake—even the slightest lapse in vigilance could be fatal, a situation that naturally inspires the mind to be finely attuned to every new development.

The point is not to make meditation sound impossible, or even difficult. It’s not that we should expect to have a “perfect” meditation session every time we sit down. Or even once! In her book The Wisdom of No Escape Pema Chödron devotes a chapter, called “Precision, Gentleness, and Letting Go,” to how these three qualities or techniques of meditation complement each other and can be used as remedies whenever one of them goes out of balance. When you catch your vigilance developing into tightness, tension, or a cascade of thoughts, then you apply relaxation in the form of gentleness or letting go; when you get too spacey or dull, then you rachet up the precision.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, in The Joy of Living, likewise urges us not to be hard on ourselves as we enter into the process of taming our minds. He says that as long as we maintain “the intention to meditate” during our session, it’s a productive one. We are all going to space out or get caught up in thoughts from time to time; the point is that as soon as we remember what we’re doing, we return to our relaxed vigilance. Doing that patiently again and again over time gradually wears away our strong habitual patterns to reveal mind’s brilliant underlying nature, and is what meditation is all about.

Time is going to pass no matter what we are doing, and we are going to get old one way or another—unless, of course, we die tomorrow. Either way, we will suddenly find ourselves at the door to the next life, prepared or unprepared.

The good news is that we don’t have to be at the mercy of the passage of time. We can put it to work for us—even turn it into an asset! If we meditate every day, even for a few minutes, that all adds up automatically as the days, weeks, months and years inexorably fly by. Lama Norlha Rinpoche has said that however much practice we do during our life, it will be in the bank when we need it, to help us through hard times, the process of dying, and the transition to what comes next. Naturally, we’ll be a lot better off when the crunch comes if we have managed to make regular deposits over time.

We can apply the same advice to our daily lives. If we spend every day completely immersed in one project and one thought after another, or lost in distraction in front of the TV, when we wake up in our next life: same old raccoon!

In three-year retreat, the goal is to be 100% focused on our practice all the time—and since we are engaged in formal practice most of the time, it’s not too hard to remember, even if we don’t always succeed. But even during our short breaks, we are encouraged not to think about what we are eating or how much sleep we are getting or what bizarre thing our neighbor seems to be up to, but to apply the techniques of meditation as much as possible in all situations, so that it eventually becomes our default mode.

In household life, where the ratio of formal practice to activity is reversed, we can still put most or even all of our time to constructive use via three handy devices:

  • engaging in positive actions and avoiding negative or harmful actions as much as possible;
  • letting unnecessary thoughts and negative emotions go as soon as we become aware of them, rather than acting on them or storing them up;
  • and, especially in the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, remembering the presence and kindness of the Lama. Once we have taken refuge, the Lama is always with us, even if we don’t remember it. When we are able to keep it in mind, that activates our receptivity to the constant flow of his awareness and blessings, and speeds our progress toward awakening.

And once we awaken, maybe we’ll be able to do something for that old raccoon.

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