Tag Archives: Tibetan Buddhism

Meditation: Setting an Intention


This isn’t a meditation in and of itself, but should be a process that you go through every single time you sit down on the meditation cushion. Setting an intention isn’t just one of the most important parts of meditation practice, it’s also one of the most important parts of living a successful and meaningful life. Before you embark on any endeavor, you should examine your motivation and set an intention that you believe truly accords with this motivation. If you aren’t satisfied with your motivation, then make a conscious effort to change it so that you can direct your energies towards your goal as directly as possible.

Setting a proper motivation before practicing meditation is important because otherwise you’re just playing a mind game with yourself. Actual meditation requires a tremendous amount of focus and discipline to keep from wandering into the comfort of dullness, so setting a sufficiently strong motivation that truly accords with your inner motivation is necessary to engage with your practice as fully as possible. Otherwise, it’s easy to allow yourself to be led off into distractions. Your motivation should form the heart and soul of your practice, giving you that energy to persevere through difficult sessions and keeping you constantly striving towards deeper levels of insight.

Most importantly, be honest with yourself about your motivation. This is not as simple as it sounds. As with all things, there is very rarely a single motivation for engaging in meditation, but rather a complex web of reasons that bring you to the cushion. In psychological terms, this is called the principle of multiple determination. Spend some time analyzing exactly what it is you’re hoping to accomplish through practicing meditation and why this is the case. Who are you meditating for? Before any of my meditation sessions with Tibetan Buddhists, they always encourage the group to set the motivation to strive to achieve wisdom for the sake of helping lead all sentient beings to enlightenment. This is a beautiful intention for serous practitioners, but it is often unrealistic for the average layperson. It’s easy to tell yourself that this is your motivation, but unless you really embody that feeling in your practice, it’s an empty intention. There’s no shame in setting your intention a bit lower. Again, be honest with yourself! If you try and fool yourself into thinking that you’re motivated by something loftier than you truly are, it will hardly add any weight to your practice. In fact, if you set a motivation that is too high and then become aware that you aren’t actually energized by it, you might fall into a state of guilt, which is entirely unproductive for practice.

That being said, not all motivations are good. It is possible to have an unhealthy motivation for meditation. Below, I list 10 forms of unhealthy intention that are often problematic for Western practitioners, though they are hardly limited to those in the West and there are many more forms of unhealthy motivation than I list here.

1) Quest for perfection and invulnerability. This is not what meditation is for. This type of motivation is most often guided by a feeling of narcissism, a desire to be self-sufficient, and to rise above ‘worldly concerns.’
2) Fear of individuation. This form of unhealthy motivation is guided by a fear of taking responsibility for one’s own life in the belief that this can be avoided by a defensive pursuit of ‘egolessness.’
3) Avoidance of responsibility and accountability. Freedom from ‘egocentric needs’ can rationalize avoidance of anxiety-producing situations (i.e. taking charge of life), causing one to retreat into meditation.
4) Fear of intimacy and closeness. Retreat into the idea of ‘no-self’ can appear to provide a way of neutralizing hurt by avoiding close relationships.
5) A substitute for grief and mourning. Similar to #4, the idea of ‘no-self’ can provide a refuge from painful emotions if misinterpreted.
6) Avoidance of feelings. This type of unhealthy motivation is guided by the belief that the goal of meditation is to reach a state of non-feeling, rather than becoming better attuned to our feelings.
7) Passivity and dependence. ‘Egolessness’ can masquerade as a way of causing one to suppress their feelings of anger and self-assertion, as well as to disguise codependency as compassionate service to a loved one
8) Self-punitive guilt. This entails using the idea of ‘non-attachment’ to act out underlying feelings of unworthiness and guilt (“Feelings are bad and therefore I’m bad for having them.”)
9) Devaluing reason and intellect. Belief in the idea that meditation solely promotes experience over rational thinking can reinforce avoidance of thinking as a way of blocking self-understanding.
10) Escape from intrapsychic experience. Similar to #4 and #5, this involves attempting to ‘let go of the ego’ as justification for repressing anything that produces anxiety or insecurity.

Notice that in many of the examples above, I place Buddhist terms in quotation marks. This is to highlight the fact that they refer not to the true Buddhist concept, but a misconception of it twisted to fit the psychological needs of the individual. All of these forms of unhealthy motivation reveal a misunderstanding of what meditation is designed to accomplish and, as such, cause the practitioner to engage in practice for the wrong reasons. It is important to examine our reasons for practicing so that we don’t fall into any of the pitfalls listed above. If your practice has previously been guided by one of these motivations, that’s okay. In order to change your motivation to something more healthy, you first need to recognize that your previous intention was misguided and not giving all the strength to meditate that you’re truly capable of mustering.

As time goes on, it’s inevitable that your meditations will change. Even day to day, your meditation is likely to be guided by different intentions. What is most important is to be aware of these various motivations and, whenever possible, to set an intention that you can truly believe in. It is only through setting a healthy motivation that you can fully get behind that you can dive as deeply as possible into practice and your own mind.


Learning to Live in the Hand of God


无为而无不为 (Do nothing and everything will be done.)

Each affects the other and the other affects the next. The world is full of stories but the stories are all One.


Apologies on the overly dramatic title. I figure to get anybody scrolling by this on their newsfeed to pause and take a look I need a header that packs a punch There’s definitely an easy opening for a Dr. Strangelove reference there but I figure I should just let it be. Throughout the rest of the piece I refer to It as the Universe, though as far as I’m concerned the term is interchangeable with God, Logos, Dao, Nature, etc.  Take your pick depending on whatever jives with your personal philosophy.


Note: I put a lot of pictures in here because I know what a pain it can be to read chunks on chunks of text. Though the photos don’t necessarily pertain to what’s written immediately above or below them, they’re roughly in chronological order, moving from my time in high school living in Vishakhapatnam/Vizag to last summer in Dharamsala. Photos from this summer are soon to come.


I’m currently writing this on the (physical) road to Dharamsala. Woke up early this morning to get to the airport by 6:30 to catch a flight to Amritsar. I was planning on visiting the Golden Temple for a few hours before heading south to Dharamsala but ended up having my flight delayed by over 4 hours so I opted to cut out the Golden Temple in order to get into Dharamsala before the middle of the night. At least I got about 20 minutes in the car with the tour guide that was going to show me around Amritsar, which proved to be highly informative and amusing.


After asking my name to confirm that I was the person that he supposed to be picking up, he immediately questioned whether or not I was an Israeli, which is actually a question I hear fairly frequently when I’m outside of the States. He told me that since I was going to Dharamsala he was curious if I was going to be running drugs (for more information on why this is actually a completely reasonable question check out this piece I wrote last summer when in Manali.) When I responded that I wasn’t Israeli (or planning on running drugs) but that I was Jewish he remained equally enthused. He let me know that Indians love Jews and that they are very admiring of the Jewish work ethic that has led them to so much success. He then told me that he was sorry about the Holocaust and that Hitler was surely just jealous of the Jews’ business acumen. I didn’t really have much to say on the matter so I just accepted his condolences.


Beside my brief little history lesson on the true cause behind the Holocaust, I also learned that, although Punjabi’s make up only 2% of the population in India, they constitute 70% of Indians living abroad in developed countries (which my guide described as the US, Canada, Australia, and most European nations.) I don’t actually have any way of verifying this fact so I really just have to take my guide at his word. Not much more to say on that but I thought it was a nice little fun fact to know and tell.


Even though essentially all of my time back in India up to this point has been spent in and out of airports, the experience has still been enough to provoke a remarkable amount of déjà vu. Even in Boston I was having flashbacks of walking through security in Terminal E at Logan with all the other kids on my SYA program back in high school. Once I arrived in Delhi, I was continually hit with images of myself walking through customs and standing at baggage claim with the people on my Emory program almost exactly a year ago. I can only imagine what it will be like to return to various places in Dharamsala that I visited last June, though I’ll be finding out soon enough.

With such an extended layover and an 8-hour car ride, I’ve have a nice chunk of time to look back on exactly how I’ve ended up here. I generally find that constructing retrospective narratives often lends a sense of coherency to one’s journey that’s falsely superimposed on a series of essentially random (or incomprehensibly causally linked) events, but even with the benefit of hindsight I’m having a hard time finding a common thread in my evolving relationship with India. In a lot of ways, I really fell as if I fell ass backwards into the whole thing.


During the latter part of high school, I developed a strong interest in economics and began to imagine myself going into some econ-related profession. I’d always been incredibly young for my grade so my advisor at the time proposed that I take some time off of school to go abroad. Given my interest in economics, traveling to a country with a rapidly developing economy seemed to be the most practical course of action, placing India and China at the top of my list. I put shockingly little consideration into my decision and somehow ended up on an academic program in the south of India, focusing on sustainable economic development. It still boggles my mind how little time I spent thinking about which foreign country I wanted to move to for 4 months. Without going into any of the details, the experience wasn’t quite what I hoped it to be (though, frankly, I had pretty few hopes or expectations for my experience from the onset since I knew so little about what I was getting myself into) and I left India with a bad taste in my mouth.


During my first 3 semesters in college I continued down the economics path, though becoming increasingly disillusioned with the whole thing after lackluster experiences both in class and with internships in the finance sector. In the spring of my sophomore year I was feeling especially fed up with my international economics course and decided to drop it so that I could pick up another course to fill a general education requirement. I remember lying in bed at 2 am on a weeknight going through the course catalogue and stumbling across an introduction to Hinduism course. Without any outstanding or even identifiable reason for doing so, I added it to my course catalogue.


Over the rest of the semester, I found myself becoming increasingly engrossed in the remarkably complex mythological and religious symbolism of India. I’ve always been fascinated by myths, beginning with the tales from Ancient Greece and Egypt that I learned about in elementary school, but a comprehensive college-level overview of the roots of Hinduism opened up a whole new world for me. This was the point at which I really had to question my plans of pursing an economics degree and I soon decided to abandon it in favor of something else, though whatever that something else might be wasn’t yet clear to me.


At the same time, I was beginning to reevaluate my initial impressions of India and started considering the prospect of returning. Given that I had no plans for the upcoming summer, it seemed like a prime time to make my return. I started looking into academic programs in India so that I would have somewhat of a foothold once I arrived there. I came across a relatively new program being led by Emory University that made heavy use of connections within the Tibetan community and government-in-exile. As with my initial decision to go to India, I put relatively little thought into applying to enroll in this particular program. If nothing else, Dharamsala sounded beautiful, peaceful, and like a nice change of pace from the southern part of the country, which is all that I had previously experienced. Additionally, the program’s premise of exploring how science and spirituality might work together in modern society intrigued me. However, I knew absolutely nothing of the concepts that lay at the heart of the program, those of Tibetan Buddhism. My newly discovered interest in religious studies had been focused almost solely on Hinduism, with brief overviews of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sufism. Up until that point, I’m not even sure if I was aware that Tibetan Buddhism was an identifiable religion in and of itself. I still find this rather shocking given that I would now consider it one of the academic subjects I’m most knowledgeable of.


The month and a half that I spent in Dharamsala as a part of the Emory program was nothing short of life changing and is chronicled in far more detail throughout the earlier entries in this blog. It proved so transformative that it has ultimately brought me back to Dharamsala this summer to continue research that I began at my time enrolled in the program last year. This time I’m here alone and for a far longer time with a much clearer purpose. As a side note, I essentially picked last summer’s research topic at random. A number of groups had already formed and I had no idea what I was doing so I basically tacked myself onto a group with some of the people that I was most friendly with. We looked into the use of sound in Tibetan Buddhist practice, a topic that I initially had no knowledge of and very little interest in. Only as I got into the research did I realize how deep there was to go and how fascinating the bottom of the rabbit hole might be.

If I could go back and time and speak to myself four and a half years ago when I was first leaving India it would be utterly impossible to convince myself that this is a country that I would ever return to, let alone come back multiple times. I first came here with the goal of learning more about economics (but really just to break the monotony of high school and being at the same school for 12+ years) and now I’m back to dig even deeper into Tibetan Buddhist meditation. I can scarcely think of 2 topics any more distantly related.


The path that’s brought me here has been fraught with accidents and poorly thought out decisions, generally guided by the desire to figure out what the fuck I want to do with my life without actually having to think about it too hard. This path that continually brings me back to India has undoubtedly made me a happier, more self-possessed person with a greater sense of direction than I ever could have imagined having when I first set foot on it. Hell, I didn’t even realize I was putting myself on a path. At that time, I hardly even knew there was any other viable path to be on besides go to high school, go to college, get a good job, find a wife, have some kids, retire, and die. I am immensely grateful that I’ve come to realize that there are many other ways to live a successful life and that there is not and can not be one single path to happiness.

Over the past 4 months I’ve made a strong commitment to work against my now natural tendency to plan ahead, guided by the Daoist phrase with which I began this post (无为而无不为-Do nothing and everything will be done.) This is certainly still a work in progress. Though I’ve made many strides, I continue to struggle to let go of uncertainty surrounding my future and the sense of insecurity that that often instills in me. However, I’ve found that leaving myself to rest comfortably and passively in the hands of the Universe has brought me levels of both happiness and excitement that were previously completely unknown to me. The past semester has been more enriching and fulfilling than it ever could have been had I attempted to plan it out. I’ve been finding that good things continue to come my way even as I question how it could be possible. Whether it’s the workings of karma, the law of attraction, or some other metaphysical force, I can’t say. Maybe it just comes down to the fact that, like everything else, I’m merely a small part of the Universe and It always provides for Itself.


I’m sure one of the other lessons here is to not look a gift horse in the mouth, though I admittedly mull over how the hell things could possibly be working out so well for me on a near daily basis. In any case, my tremendous fortune in the recent past (and, honestly, my whole life) is cause for me to feel tremendously blessed and embraced in something far larger than myself. As I head into a 10 week adventure on which I have very little concrete idea of what I’m doing, I find supreme comfort in the fact that things work themselves out in one way or another, often for the better if one remains open to new opportunities.

Given the way the past few years have gone, I’m more aware than ever that it’s impossible to accurately predict where one’s path is leading but in the spite of the uncertainty (and perhaps because of it) I could hardly be more optimistic.