The modern world has become infatuated with the practice of meditation. Smiling meditators grace the covers of magazines. CEOs are bringing mindfulness into the workplace. We’re even teaching children to meditate at school. Seeing all the images and hearing the stories, it would be easy to think that the point of meditation is simply to sit in a certain posture following a certain technique.
But the real power of meditation isn’t in the method. It’s in shifting our perspective. In Mahayana Buddhism, we call this “the view.” The view is not a technique. It’s how we see ourselves and how we relate to our own thoughts and emotions. Without a shift in our view, even the most powerful meditation techniques will just reinforce old patterns and habits.
The essential view of buddhanature is as profound as it is simple: You are perfect, just as you are, in this very moment.
The problem with this view is that it doesn’t feel real to us. Focusing on the negativities that obscure our buddhanature, we can’t seem to experience it for ourselves.
I grew up in the middle of the Himalayas, right at the foot of Mount Manaslu, the eighth-highest mountain the world. My family was filled with great meditators and I myself was recognized as a reincarnate lama, known in Tibet as a tulku, when I was just a few years old. I was born into a fairy tale.
But that was just on the surface.
Despite the beautiful environment I grew up in, and the loving family and spiritual role models I was surrounded by, my early years were filled with anxiety. I was seven when I started to have panic attacks. Panic followed me like a shadow for most of my childhood.
This was about the same time that I started hearing about buddhanature. My father, a famed Dzogchen master, told me about the view of buddhanature, but I didn’t believe it. At least, I didn’t believe it was true about me. My reality was fear and panic; buddhanature just sounded like a fantasy. It was someone else’s experience, not mine.
When I first learned to meditate, I hoped it would help me get rid of all my flaws and shortcomings. Everyone else I knew seemed so calm and confident, but I was filled with anxiety. I was attracted to meditation because I imagined a new, improved me. One without the fear and anxiety. One who wasn’t so sensitive and easily overwhelmed.
I tried and tried to meditate my way to freedom. Meditation became my weapon in my battle against my own mind. But it didn’t work. There were times when my mind was calm and the panic seemed to disappear, but then it would re-emerge with even more force, and any small amount of confidence I’d developed would vanish like mist.
The big breakthrough came when I finally gave up. I had been fighting my emotions for so long, with so little success, that I finally let myself entertain a new possibility: maybe I couldn’t be fixed—not because I was fundamentally flawed, but because I wasn’t broken.
So I stopped playing the old game, and started a new one. Instead of fighting my panic and pushing away my fearful thoughts and anxious expectations, I let them in. I didn’t focus on them, but I didn’t ignore them. I dropped all the “doing” and finally gave myself permission to simply “be.”
I’d like to say that this is when the earth shook and the clouds parted, but at first, letting go of the impulse to always be “doing” something was uncomfortable and unfamiliar. My impulses didn’t disappear, but I let them come and go without following them—even the impulse to “meditate.” I wasn’t even doing that. I was just being there.
It was so simple and ordinary, but it was a radical shift: I was no longer trying to win the old game.
In this moment of letting go, I started to see that I’d completely missed the point of meditation. In my endless quest to improve upon the present moment, I was blinding myself to what was already there, and always is. Buddhanature. Our inherent perfection. Our true nature.
As my experience shows, letting go of the view that we are fundamentally flawed is not easy. We receive so many messages in our day-to-day lives that tell us just the opposite. We’re not smart enough, beautiful enough, or successful enough. If we could just work harder, eat healthier, or be a little less stressed, then maybe, just maybe, we would finally feel okay.
The basic assumption in all these messages is that we are not good enough, and maybe never will be. It doesn’t matter what we accomplish in life, what we look like, or how far we climb the ladder of success. There’s always something missing.
If we don’t question this assumption, meditation can easily become a subtle form of aggression. We might succeed in calming the turbulent waters of the mind for a few fleeting moments, but we’ll end up reinforcing the old habit of seeing only our flaws. Just like everything else in life, no matter what we do and no matter how hard we try, there will always be another hill to climb. There is no way to win this game.
Buddhanature is not a better way to play the same old game. It’s an entirely different game. The principle of buddhanature invites us to explore our experience in a new way—not with an eye to correcting what’s wrong, but noticing what has always been right.
Our Effortless Awareness
One of the first qualities of buddhanature that my teachers introduced me to was awareness. Awareness is like a thread that runs through every experience we have. Our thoughts and emotions are constantly changing. Our reactions and perceptions come and go. Yet despite these changes, awareness is always present. It is wide open and accommodating like the sky, immeasurably deep and vast like the ocean, and stable and enduring like a massive mountain.
Awareness doesn’t get better when we have an inspired thought or a sublime emotion. It doesn’t get worse when we’re completely neurotic. Awareness just is. It’s not something we do. It’s who we are.
Since awareness is always there, the only thing we need to do is recognize it. We don’t need to improve it, and we couldn’t even if we tried.
The biggest challenge with awareness is that it’s so close, we don’t see it. It’s so ordinary, we don’t believe it. It’s just knowing, effortless presence.
Who is reading this right now? Who’s having this experience? It’s awareness. This awareness is who you are right now, in this very moment.
Let’s do a brief practice to experience this effortless awareness:
- Before you read further, pause for a moment.
- Let go of the doing for a moment and allow yourself to be.
- Don’t meditate on the breath…just breathe.
- Don’t meditate on sound…just listen.
- Now don’t do anything. Just be here.
- Whatever this moment holds for you, just experience it, as it is.
Awareness itself is whole and complete. It’s always here and it can accommodate anything. You can talk, you can move, you can even read, as you are right now. All of this is happening within awareness.
Our Natural Love and Compassion
This effortless presence isn’t a blank, lifeless state. It’s alive and deeply engaged with the world.
When we are simply present with what’s happening within and around us, a natural sense of love and compassion emerges. Like awareness, these qualities are not something we have to develop or cultivate. They are abiding qualities of our true nature.
The seeds of compassion are present in our very simple wish to avoid pain and discomfort. Love is present in the movement toward happiness and fulfillment. In every moment we experience these movements. When we shift our posture or blink our eyes to avoid discomfort, we express compassion. When we enjoy a sip of water or respond to the smile of a friend, we experience love.
Love and compassion are present when we least expect them to be. They are even present within painful emotions like fear and anger, since these reactions are rooted in the impulse to avoid pain and discomfort and to experience happiness and well-being. They were present in my panic attacks. I didn’t want to suffer any more. I wanted to feel safe and secure. I just didn’t know where to look. But what I didn’t see was that the instinct to be happy and free from suffering was always there.
Pause for a moment and see if you can sense these qualities.
- Do you feel the impulse to move away from discomfort, or to avoid anything unpleasant.
- Just notice that.
- That feeling is compassion.
- Can you sense the wish to experience happiness, contentment, or simply to feel whole?
- Rest for a moment and see what you notice.
- That subtle movement toward happiness is love.
When you’re done reading this and you continue on with your day, notice these qualities in other people as well. They are like the rays of the sun. As long as awareness is present, love and compassion are present too.
Our Innate Wisdom
Another essential quality of our buddhanature is wisdom. Every one of us has deep insight. We may not always notice it, but it’s there.
We are all searching desperately for something. We don’t always know what it is, but we feel something is missing. So we keep looking and looking.
Wisdom is the constant companion of all this endless searching. At some deep level, we know when we’re looking in the right place. And when we’re indulging an old habit, we know when we’re off track. We don’t always listen to that voice, but it’s there. We’re like a bird, flying from tree to tree looking for our nest. We know home when we find it, and so long as we’re not there, we know to keep looking.
When we start to shift from doing to being, we start to feel that sense of finally being home. We can let go of the search and relax. No one needs to tell us this when it happens. That intuitive knowing is wisdom. Every thought, every emotion, and every impulse is rooted in that wisdom. We just need to recognize it.
If awareness, compassion, and wisdom were qualities we could attain or develop, it would make perfect sense to do something to cultivate them. But we don’t have to cultivate them because they are part of our basic nature. We already have them.
Any attempt to change, fix, or improve what’s happening in the present moment reinforces the old belief that we’re missing something. On the other hand, if we do nothing, we’re right where we started. Nothing will change.
The key to this paradox is recognition. Buddhanature isn’t something we do, but it is something we need to recognize.
A simple way to explore this in your meditation practice is pause from time to time to simply be. If your usual meditation is to focus on the breath, drop the meditation from time to time and just be. Don’t control your attention in any way. Attention is like a breeze; awareness is like the sky itself. You don’t need to calm the mind. Awareness is already calm.
Any thoughts and feelings that arise can be left to themselves. There is not a single experience that can get in the way of awareness. Just let them all be there, and notice that awareness is always there too. If you’re aware of your awareness, that’s enough.
This will feel unfamiliar at first. It may even be unsettling, and you’ll almost certainly experience the residue of the doing impulse. That’s normal. As your familiarity with this quality of being grows, you will begin to see that compassion and wisdom are right here. You will realize that you will never be more perfect that you are right now, in this very moment.
Originally published in the September 2019 Lion's Roar magazine and on LionsRoar.com. Reproduced with permission.