Shamatha Vipashyana


Mindfulness and awareness are natural aspects of the mind. Mindfulness is what we do with our attention and awareness is what we notice. We have mindfulness and awareness all the time. We don’t have to meditate to have mindfulness and awareness.

When we drive a car, we are mindful of braking, steering, and signaling, going forward or reversing. When we are out on the open road, we are aware of other drivers, pedestrians, and hazards like roadworks — the mind has natural mindfulness, has natural awareness.

When we start sitting in meditation practice, we are mindful of our thoughts and our awareness is scattered like autumn leaves in the wind.

Here is a quote from the Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche: “At first we are not sure what the breath is and sometimes we are not able to recognize the present moment either. Distractions keep pulling us away. After some practice we are able to recognize a thought and let it go, come back, and be present.”

That was my experience when I started sitting in Edinburgh in 1980. I started out practicing two hours a day in Edinburgh, Scotland. What can I say? There wasn’t much to do and we didn’t have social media. Besides, I wanted to pay down my karmic debt.

I practiced a lot. I loved it. This was quality time with someone I loved. I never got tired of being there with myself, again, and again. But when I started out I had no idea even where the breath was. Looking back I realize I faked that for a long time. I assumed it was around here somewhere because I was still breathing.

However, I did apply the mindfulness technique from the get-go. Mindfulness practice is simple and repetitive: We recognize a thought. In that moment – in that moment we are back. We let the thought go and we are present. Sure, maybe we go right back to the thought, but we still had that moment of recognition. And we can have many of those moments.

Even a master teacher like Pema Chodron talks about how sometimes she can go a whole meditation session caught up in thoughts until the gong rings to end the session. In that moment, she hears the sound of the gong echoing in the space and she is right there in that moment with her breath and her body and her mind. That is still a great moment. That is connection with yourself.

So, things can start a bit choppy. Perhaps all you are doing is just being in the room. You have to start somewhere and we all start on the cushion.

We are just being by ourselves. You sit down and you show up for yourself. That’s your mindfulness. And you are curious. You try not to judge. You try to be gentle.

Maybe you do judge, but then you don’t judge yourself for judging. You just be. You just come back to being her with yourself. Because you repeat the technique over and over, you become familiar with the technique. You become familiar with yourself too.

Just like a learner driver becomes familiar with the brakes and the steering and the gear shifting, when you are practicing in a parking lot, you are repeating the mechanics – the mindfulness of driving the car. Slowly over time a shift begins to happen. The mindfulness becomes second nature. You take the car out on the road and a wider awareness grows.

When you start out, you are just like the learner driver in the parking lot. You are becoming familiar with the mindfulness practice. The more you sit in meditation, the more familiar you become. As you become more comfortable with the technique, the mind settles, and awareness increases. At first the awareness was just that moment when you realize you are thinking, that flash of “Oh, I’m here and I’m practicing mindfulness.” But over time, as mindfulness becomes second nature, your awareness deepens into insight.

When mindfulness creates more space, when the flow of thoughts takes place in a larger meadow, awareness is there. It doesn’t even arise. Awareness is what is there when your mind settles. When there is more space, when your mind is settled there is room for insights to come up. The insights are not the awareness. They arise out of the space of awareness.

In Twelve Steps they have something called The Promises. One of those promises is, “We will understand things that used to baffle us.” That is insight.

The static used to baffle us and gradually by applying mindfulness, by coming back to the present moment again, the static settles, and awareness is there.

Awareness is sometimes called clear seeing. When you see a red flower, it’s not the same red you saw before. It’s the red of red, the red of right now.

You naturally start to see your world more. You start to notice. When you see red, it’s really red. When you hear the gong, you really hear the gong. When you have been practicing mindfulness, you start to lean into that awareness.

Awareness naturally becomes accessible when you are mindful for a long time. We relate not just to our thoughts, but to the space between the thoughts. Awareness is always there, like the sun behind the clouds.

The ancient Tibetan saint, Milarepa, says, “In the gap between thoughts, non-conceptual wisdom shines continuously.”

Navaho Prayer from the Blessing Way

In beauty I walk

With beauty before me I walk

With beauty behind me I walk

With beauty above me I walk

With beauty around me I walk

It has become beauty again


Here are references for further reading on Trungpa’s Vipashyana teachings.
  • Categories of Vipashyna, Talk 13 of the 1974 Seminary Transcripts of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
  • The Path of Individual Liberation section of the Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma series

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