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Meditation builds the mental muscle to connect and sustain familiarity with intrinsic qualities of mind such as tenderness, courage, benevolence, and resilience, which in turn heal and transform mental states such as hostility, arrogance, and confusion, which disserve us. The process works reliably when we engage our mind proactively.

Innate Excellence

It is something of a paradox, isn’t it, that we find ourselves cultivating qualities that are described as implicit to mind?

Embedded in the buddhanature teachings of the Kagyu lineage, this approach to meditation recognizes that pristine purity of mind is always present, yet incompletely accessible to us to the extent delusion and compulsive emotionality obscure them. Connecting with and building the mental muscle (as one eloquent practitioner recently described it) to sustain familiarity with these qualities is the purpose of meditation.

The way this occurs varies with the meditation technique, but any technique stands or falls on our level of engagement with it. For example, tranquility meditation (Skr. shamatha, Tib. phoen. shinay) progressively develops the natural balance between the qualities of stillness and lucidity naturally present to mind. This happens (or not) in direct proportion to the level of our active engagement with the techniques that connect with mind qualities that strike and sustain that balance.


Those bold-faced terms in the previous paragraph are key. The Buddha teaches the Dharma out of his direct experience, placing the instructions for spiritual development squarely in our hands. Thus, crafting an effective practice is an active-progressive process that sinks or sinks based on the intentionality of our engagement with any given meditation technique.

Perhaps the best way to explain the vivacity and uniqueness of active-progressive engagement in meditation practice is to describe its theoretical polar opposite: a passive habit of meeting our mind on the cushion (or chair, kneeling bench, what have you) then waiting for something to happen, wholly independent of our participation. When we (unsurprisingly) experience no fruits from our meditation practice, instead falling into habitual patterns along the continuum from thought explosion to somnolent implosion, we may assert that “I can’t meditate,” or “meditation is not for me--I always fall asleep/get lost in thought,” and the like.

Spelling it out starkly in this way reveals that such an approach is regressive in character, devolving into a less developed state through reinforcing unskillful mental habits, rather than evolving into an increasingly cultivated mental agility through reinforcing skillful states in meditation practice, irrespective of technique. No meditation technique, Buddhist or otherwise, contemplates a passive and regressive engagement of this kind.


Let’s go back to this brilliantly carnal, embodied example of building muscle. Say we want to lose some of those pandemic pounds and get a bit leaner. Nothing extreme, just regaining a healthy balance. We join a gym, get a tour of the equipment, buy comfy workout togs, good supportive sneakers, and show up, vaccinated, masked, and at an appropriate physical distance. Every day. At the same time. With all the paraphernalia.

Then wander through the gym for half an hour, adrift in thoughts, or dazed, or dozing on a workout mat, not touching any equipment, then go back to work or home or whatever comes next.

Perhaps we are a bit more engaged. We do one bicep curl per arm, wait a few minutes, follow that with one squat. A few more minutes. One push-up, a sit-up, a plank. Time to go.

Months, even years later, we wonder why there are no signs of progress. The scale doesn’t budge. Our clothes are just as snug. Or worse, we go in the opposite of our intended direction. We keep at it, doggedly, going to the gym daily, wondering why it is that our mind gets sluggish (or hyperactive) as soon as we walk into the workout room.

Personal training

I don’t know about you, but when we first viewed our meditation practice in light of examples like this, we were humbled. Deeply. Heck, outright embarrassed. What a vivid image of our habits on the meditation cushion for more time than we care to mention!

This started to change when we took on a personal trainer called Prajna. Precise knowledge. Discernment. Taking us progressively through the steps for active cultivation of skillful mental states, precise knowledge changed the way we showed up for meditation practice. No longer passive. Active. Not a nominal physical showing up, but an engaged presence of body, speech, and mind. It was not long before our practice development went from regressive to progressive.

The Buddhist path is nothing if not a stepwise path of cultivation. The learning does not stop until buddhahood. There is always more for us to do and learn, to deepen and broaden. In the frame of active-progressive spiritual practice, however, this is more inspiring than daunting. The fire that grows beneath our feet as we engage mind actively inspires us to bring in anything and everything in service of progressive spiritual development.

In this view, the inspiration that lies at the heart of Mahamudra in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, is an exceedingly participatory style of practice that seamlessly weds on and off the cushion activity so that these aspects of our lives mutually reinforce each other.


As much as we enjoy theory, a quick look at the nuts and bolts in action is illuminating.

Let’s take a peek at how this works using the example of tranquility meditation (Skr. shamatha, Tib. shinay), the most common style of Buddhist formal practice.

The breath is a common attentional focus during tranquility meditation, though the way of engaging the breath in any given meditation technique varies with the particular instruction. To engage meditation in an active and progressive manner, irrespective of technique, connecting with breath as an experience rather than an abstraction is vital.

Breathing happens all the time. Yet, our awareness of breath often stays buried, with the ongoing flow of breath taken for granted, in a sense. We do not ordinarily consider the quality of our breath, its features and characteristics at any given moment, not to mention the myriad interactions of breath and body.

Nevertheless, we have taken many breaths! As a result we know things like, ”In sleep, the breath is longer and deeper,” or “When I run, the breath becomes quick and shallow.”

Embodied Experience

The beauty of the breath as a meditation focus, of course, starts with its availability: it is always present, always moving, and always in the moment.

In active-progressive meditation practice, we connect with our actual experience of the breath, whatever that may be. Not concepts about the breath, or the idea of how it feels in or moving against the body. The raw experience of breath is the focus, rather than labeling, or characterizing it. We simply fall back into that embodied experience of the breath.

When we engage breath actively, we experience directly how its connection to the body serves as a gauge for our mental state. For example, say our mind gets lost in thought in the middle of a meditation session. Technically speaking, this is called agitation, excitement, or wandering, which may manifest as tightening in the spine, or inability to rest the gaze, with the eyes moving. The breath may be short and spare, cold, even jolty.

A common reaction to this, when noticed, is to tighten the concentration, to force it to stay settled with the breath as the meditation focus.

So not helpful!

Mental agitation that yields a proliferation of thoughts is a tightened state. Tightening it more is like squeezing a toothpaste tube, increasing the flow. What the agitated mind can use is relaxation, loosening the concentration such that attention is held gently, expansively, like taking in the view of a valley from a hilltop. This mindset of broad surveying the full range experience of breath in the body opens up space and releases tension that would only agitate the mind further.

By contrast, if the body slumps, the eyes grow heavy, and the breath lengthens and warms, we are beginning to succumb to inner distraction--termed dullness, stupor, or laxity. A sleepy or numbed out mind domain can use more structure, including uplift of the spine and gaze, as well as directing the attention with precise detection of the movement of breath in narrower range within the body, with more intentionality and rigor.

Basically, active-progressive practice in the context of tranquility is very much about connecting with our immediate embodied experience of and associated with the breath, then making adjustments as needed by leaning into our intentionality to shift towards attentional balance. Similar approach applies to any meditation technique.

Here, the process is something like riding a swing: you lean back as the pendulum curve moves towards one peak, then forward as the pendulum shifts back.

Or consider the yoga posture Vrikshasana, or tree pose, in which we stand with one leg straight and the foot of the opposite leg on and perpendicular to the thigh of the straight leg. We attune to balance. If we feel we are tilting this way, we shift slightly that way to recover stability. It won’t help to just allow ourselves to fall over! We subtly shift the weight many times, in micromovements this way and that to gain and sustain balance.

These physical analogs are vibrant examples of the subtle inner movements involved in active-progressive engagement with tranquility meditation, in which intentionality leans in the direction of attentional balance--towards relaxation in response to outer distraction of agitated thoughts, or towards structure in response to inner distraction of laxity or sleep.

Working with the breath and the subtle bodily cues that signal agitation and dullness is more nuanced than standing on one leg, of course. It takes more precision in examining and investigating our embodied experience of breath moment to moment. Yet it carries the same quality. The more we do this, the more subtle our attention gets, the more we spot even subtler states of body and mind through the medium of attending to the breath.


Meditation is meant to cultivate familiarity with our mind, learn how it functions, what conditions serve and disserve it. This experiential inquiry into the meditative experience is part of the meditation itself.

After the meditation period of the session and before the end of the session as a whole, we review our time in practice, asking such questions as:

  • Did I tend towards falling into habitual mind states? Or pushing them away? Or not even noticing?

  • To what extent did I recognize what was happening in mind as it happened?

  • What did I do when I did recognize movements of mind?

  • To what extent can I spot that moment when thoughts slip into the past? Or haggle with the present? Or arrange the future?

  • What is the experience itself before habitual reaction takes over?

  • How does entanglement occur for me?

  • What did I learn that will help me train further?

Here, too, it is the experience, not the concepts, that remain front and center. Staying with our naked experience before reactivity, storylines, and the like take over is key. We employ the relative tranquility of mind at the end of the formal practice to connect with our experience rather than conceptualize, and to spot habits that require tending, learn from the process, and lay a foundation for the next session. Finally, we take in the goodness of having practiced, feeling joy in our meditation, whatever the details, and delighting in the opportunity to take the teachings into experience.

Stay tuned for later installments in this series to dive further into the mechanics of meditation, by looking into the energetics of the meditating mind.


Adventures in Investigating Mind


The Kagyu lineage stresses experiential investigation of mind as a primary vehicle to realizing our true face. In this intensive practice weekend, we map the adventure that is coming to know mind, right within the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of everyday life and formal meditation.

Saturday and Sunday, June 12-13, 2021 10:00 AM to noon USA MDT 1:00 PM to 1:45 PM USA MDT 2:30 to 4:30 PM USA MDT Time Zone Converter Zoom Online Video Conference CLICK HERE OR IMAGE TO SIGN UP


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