We begin the practice of Mind Training by training in the preliminaries. That comes in two parts, preparing for meditation and preparing for practice. We’ll talk about preparing for practice today. Of course this includes familiarization with basic seated meditation and some mindfulness practice but primarily it is having an understanding of the preliminaries.
The preliminaries serve as a basic starting point that offer us continued connection to our motivation and insight to our existence. The ideas, also referred to as the Four Mind-Turning Truths, Chogyam Trungpa calls “taking an attitude of the four reminders.” Having an understanding of these truths, along with a chance to contemplate them, is essential foundational work in this journey. Training in the preliminaries is not reserved for a buddhist path. It’s the first slogan of Seven Point Mind Training, but it is also a key stage in the healing process. These truths can be used as motivations; to develop embodied mindfulness, to be fully present moment to moment, to awaken, to heal, and to grow.
“The meditations turn our minds toward our highest aspirations and progressively reorder priorities.” B. Alan Wallace
The first is that all life is precious. Of course we have a respect and appreciation for the lives of all beings. We treat animals with compassion. We avoid killing a pest we can easily move outside. But this truth goes beyond the respect of general life and asks us to take a look at our our very own life. How precious this opportunity is. To be human is actually something that is very rare. Compared to all of the living beings and organisms on the planet, we are but a blip. We tend to feel being human is our right, that it couldn’t be any other way. We feel it’s something we are entitled to, but the opportunity is actually a great gift. Beyond that we begin to contemplate the advantages and freedoms that we are blessed with. This is not intended to negate the difficulties we each face, but rather a practice in gratitude with which we can take a clear and wide view of all of the opportunities that we have. If you are reading this right now you have electric, a computer, wi-fi, free time, a home, some education and an opportunity to explore a spiritual path. Even in this modern world, all of that is very rare. When we’ve had a chance to connect with the majestic gift that is our life, we can begin to consider what it is we are looking for, what will make our life meaningful.
“Let’s aim higher by thinking about what will make this life truly meaningful. We have the opportunity to create the causes for both temporary and ultimate happiness, which will benefit ourselves and others. This human body and intelligent mind are essential supports for attaining these goals.” - Khentrul Lodrö T’Hayé
The second truth is impermanence. You are going to die and you don’t know when. Now that we’ve recognized the preciousness of our life, we must understand that it is temporary, everything is. Everything is changing constantly. We will lose everything and everyone that we love. It’s not meant to sound cynical. It is simply a truth that we don’t like to recognize. It’s one many have avoided altogether. We will die and we do not know how or when. That is our guarantee. We too often approach life as though we are here forever.
“The suspense about our time of death allows us to feel eternal and gives us a false security about time. We behave as though our lives will last forever. A sense of timelessness makes the mind passive and lethargic. It also causes insecurity and impatience in our daily lives.” -Ringu Tulku.
Can we use the truth of our own impermanence to come fully to each moment. To be fully present when we connect with friends and loved ones. To be fully present as we navigate the magic of this experience, even the tasks we tend to find mundane. It may be a bit easier to cultivate a compassionate heart when we recognize how short our time with friends and loved ones really is.
The next mind turning truth is that there is Karma. That all of our actions work in a system of cause and effect. It’s easy to think of Karma in the sense that if you do good things good things happen, and if you do bad things bad things happen. While there’s some truth to that, it’s also not quite that simple. If we’re working through the heart, we should be noticing when our motivations are rooted in self seeking and when they are rooted in virtue. If we are acting from a place of virtue, we are accumulating merit and good karma. When we are acting from a place that is not self-indulgent or self-seeking, we’re typically able to be beyond frustration, and anger and resentment. These are only a few of the difficult emotions that arise when our selfish expectations are not met fully or how we envisioned. Acting from a place of virtue mitigates a great deal of difficulty.
“Karma, the operation of cause and effect, is really the main them of all preliminary practices. When we contemplate precious human birth, impermanence and suffering, it should be in the context of what we need to do to accumulate merit and purify our negativity.” -Dzigur Kongtrul
One way top look at Karma is that the teachings will present themselves until we get it. If we are looking towards difficult experience and emotions as something to learn from, then, when we are faced with a difficulty we can meet it with a meditative viewpoint, examine our role, discover how we can adjust our actions to avoid that predicament in the future. That is “getting it”, that is using difficulty as fuel for awakening.
One of my favorite bits on Karma is from Padmasambhave who states:
“If you want to know your past life, look at your present conditions; and if you want to know your future life, look into your present conditions.”
Once again, there is only now.
The final of these truths is that there is suffering. That is a part of the human experience. Buddhism recognizes that life is suffering, suffering is caused by attachment and if we shed the attachment we can connect with joy and well being. So yes, there is suffering, but we do not have to suffer. Through a practice we can trust, we can rest in the stillness and experience the oneness of it all. Beyond the good and bad, likes and dislikes.
“This contemplation is not trying to suggest that life is dissatisfactory in itself; it is simply highlighting the truth that we’ll never find real purpose or meaning in world pursuits. Due to the misguided nature of our efforts, much of what we do to bring meaning to our lives only leads to further frustration, pain and disappointment so that we simply go around in circles making the same mistakes.” -Traleg Kyabgon