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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Road Home

A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path

Ethan Nichtern; Foreword by Sharon Salzberg

North Point Press




Accepting Your Own Friend Request

Meditation has become incredibly popular. Well, at least popular in theory. Aspects of Buddhist meditation have already had a profound influence on a wide swath of our culture, as mindfulness and other techniques have been widely integrated into Western psychology, medicine, arts, social justice work, and even early childhood education. This has all happened very quickly, in some ways far more rapidly than Buddhist thought was integrated into the new cultures it migrated into throughout its Asian past. I am part of the second generation of the American Shambhala Buddhist community, and many of the obstacles that the first generation faced in establishing its practice are now greatly diminished, thanks to the hard work of dedicated pioneers in integrating Eastern practices into Western culture.

I imagine that when my parents each told friends and family in the early 1970s that they were practicing meditation, the response they got was quite different from what I get when I disclose my own practice now. I know my parents were met with many confused looks and worried questions behind their backs about swamis and cults. I especially like to imagine the look on my grandparents' faces circa 1973 in the small farming town of Stuttgart, Arkansas, when my mother, Janice, tried to explain to them that she was now following a brilliant and wild Tibetan man, receiving teachings on the nature of mind.

Things have changed drastically since the 1970s. Rarely a day goes by that my social network doesn't light up with a widely shared link to an article about the proven health benefits of meditation practice. Now, wherever I go, when I tell somebody I teach Buddhism, it's never greeted with frowns, and is almost always a big plus for my credibility as a human being. "That's so awesome!" people usually say. Often they will follow by telling me about their own practice or experience with Buddhism, or else they might start talking about their yoga practice, or maybe the dialectical behavioral therapist they work with. Every once in a while when I reveal what I do, the person I'm talking to will put his hands together at his heart center and say a quiet namaste in a semireverent tone-a gesture totally out of context-and I have to catch myself from cracking up in front of him.

The thing that happens most often when I tell people I meditate is actually pretty strange: after singing the theoretical praises of meditation, the person says something like, "I wish I could meditate. I just can't. I tried. I just couldn't empty my mind. It just wouldn't stop." Because of these seemingly countless encounters-where people highly praise meditation and proudly say things like, "If I'm anything, I'm a Buddhist," only to turn around in the next breath and say they aren't cut out for meditation-I often joke that meditation has become the thing we're all really happy that other people do.


Why is meditation so popular in theory, but less so in actuality? Why do people encounter so much difficulty with even a foundational practice like mindfulness of body, where we simply take a comfortable posture, connect with the present moment, and try to gather our attention to the feeling of our body breathing for a few brief minutes? Countless studies-and, much more important, the personal experience of millions of practitioners-have already verified the many positive and transformative effects, as well as the health benefits, of a sustained long-term meditation practice. There is even evidence to suggest that a small but consistent amount of meditation practice might amplify the expression of positive genetic traits!5 Techniques that have been formally studied include mindfulness, compassion meditation, and now even more esoteric visualization techniques. Why, then, aren't people walking the streets of our major cities with meditation cushions strapped across their backs, the same way they do with yoga mats?

Part of the issue is that there are some lingering misconceptions about what meditation practice means and what it offers. Exploring two traditional Buddhist translations for the word "meditation" can help to demystify this confusion and make the practice more accessible, as well as to clarify common misunderstandings about its purpose and effects.

Definition One: Cultivation-No Fast Food in This Garden

Like almost everything worth doing in life, meditation is a long-term endeavor, meant to be practiced a little bit each day over a long period of time, along with occasional periods of retreat to deepen your experience. I know so many people who have tried meditation once or twice and then gave up on it because they didn't instantly get the results they were looking for. The results we are looking for, unfortunately, often include stopping our thoughts altogether, or destroying unwanted emotions. One simple reason meditation is difficult to sustain is that the principal benefits of meditation are not short-term, and it is generally hard to convince ourselves to engage in anything that has mostly long-term effects. Our global culture and the animal portion of our brains are geared toward activities that have short-term rewards, and our culture and our brains both fight hard to keep us away from activities that provoke short-term resistance. This is part of the commuter's mentality; when we wander through life, we tend to privilege short-term convenience.

The first traditional definition of meditation points to the need to view it as a long-term process. There is a word in the Pali and Sanskrit languages of early Buddhism, bhavana, which is generally translated as "meditation practice." Bhavana means something like cultivation, developing, or growing. It has the feel of gardening. This word points to the fact that meditation helps us cultivate qualities of mind that truly make a difference in life: mindfulness, compassion, love, intelligence, patience, and fearlessness. These are, after all, the qualities we hope people will remember us by. I, for one, hope that when I'm gone people have more to say about me than, "He could watch every single episode of his favorite show in one marathon session, without ever leaving the couch. Now that's stamina!"

From the standpoint of bhavana, meditation functions very similarly to physical exercise, like the slow training of a healthy body. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche points to the fact that everyone at least theoretically agrees that physical exercise is a good thing. At least we agree around New Year's Day, when making our resolutions. Though we rarely think that our mind can be exercised, it is, in fact, arranged as a group of muscular systems that we need to develop slowly through training.

To take this analogy further, think about how you feel when you watch a world-class athlete. When we see this athlete, of course we might think much of their success comes from natural talents, but we also know that their abilities were developed through a lot of training. Nobody thinks Michael Jordan got where he did without a whole lifetime of practice. He was in the gym all the time (he got cut from his high school team, by the way).

However, when we see an incredibly compassionate person, our mind makes different assumptions. We tend to just assume that they (the Dalai Lama, Dr. King, Aung San Suu Kyi, etc.) were "born that way," that there was no training involved, no resistance confronted, no bravery required in becoming who they became. The best we can do as mere mortals, we figure, is to maybe get a distant blessing or a deep hug from such a saint. Maybe then some of their magic aura will rub off on us. Believing that great people are born without having to work with their heartminds reveals a lack of understanding that we ourselves can develop our minds. Through meditation, we come to see that mindfulness and compassion are like mental muscles that need to be worked daily. That's the remarkable fact: compassion is something you have to train in.

When we don't realize that we can cultivate our mind over time, we feel stuck, helpless, resigned to a schmuck's sorry fate, disbelieving that we could ever transform how we perceive ourselves and how we interact with the world. Without our realizing it, this misguided view leads us to a very harmful place, because it causes us to abdicate responsibility for the cultivation of compassion, always leaving the hard work to somebody else. But if humans are going to thrive (or even survive), we each need to manifest as a decent, mindful, and compassionate person in this world. We can't wait for the right person to get elected (we already tried that one) or, for that matter, the perfect teacher or guru to show up on our doorstep and bless us, removing all veils and obstacles.

A few years back, I joined a CSA, or community-supported agriculture program. Once a week, we city dwellers would pick up a load of fresh vegetables and produce delivered from an organic farm upstate. It was March when I signed up for the farm share. Feeling ecofriendly and hipster green, I proudly asked over the phone when we could pick up our first load of produce. The woman responded, "Oh, probably the first week of June." The first week of June was almost three months away. My knee-jerk thought was "What a rip-off!" Then I remembered the truth of how slowly good things come into being. "Oh, I forgot. They have to grow the food first. Right."

Our inclination to get caught up looking for immediate solutions mirrors our tendency as a society. So many of our global systems seek fast-food solutions for our shared problems. Our political and economic systems are overly bound to outcomes that can be quickly achieved, outcomes that almost always sacrifice the long-term health of our society and planet. These instant gratification approaches always seem the most profitable, but only when profit is defined as immediate comfort with minimal effort. As a society, we need to contemplate why we've come to prefer quick gains over long-term sustainability. Likewise, as individuals seeking happiness, we need to come face-to-face with our problematic addiction to immediate gratification and convenience. Meditation gently forces us to confront just how much the habit of instant gratification has led us astray, into a commute of dissatisfaction. In fact, the more we practice, the more practice begins to short-circuit our animalistic wiring to seek pleasure right now.

Of course, it makes total sense that we look for a quick-fix version of mental well-being, something that might reduce stress and reliably make us feel good immediately. Let's be honest: if quick fixes actually worked, then the smartest thing to do would be to go for the quick fix, every single time. However, there is no fast-food version of meditation and, if there were, it would probably be about as healthy for the mind as fast food is for the body.

To be a committed meditation practitioner, you have to sit down for, say, ten minutes each day, thinking about the effects of your practice ten years in the future, rather than just hoping to feel awesome the moment the timer goes off. Some days you do feel great at the end of the session, whole and balanced, capable and even fearless. But some days when the gong rings, you just feel cranky and defensive, rubbed a little raw by your time on the cushion, like you lost a few layers of skin. To become a student of meditation is to become a student of life, a student of process itself. In my experience, becoming a student of meditation leads to studying everything else-art, culture, politics, relationships-more fully. You establish a basic rhythm of being more process-oriented, and you are willing to stick with all processes more appreciatively, more patiently. You generally become, in the words of Pema Chödrön, one of the Acharyas, or master teachers, of the Shambhala lineage, more "curious about existence."

This is not to say that meditation doesn't offer any short-term benefits such as stress reduction, settledness of mind within chaotic life situations, clarity of intention, and heartfelt empathy for others, to name a few. These effects have all been verified by multiple studies that have examined a wide range of the effects of practice on both brand-new and highly experienced practitioners.6 But if you try to use your meditation practice to feel a certain way every time, to experience a reliable bliss, you eventually end up with the kind of spiritual objectification that is the very source of the commuter's confusion. Meditation just doesn't work that way, because reality just doesn't work that way.

The fact is, there are much better ways to feel short-term pleasure than to meditate. I'm sure you are familiar with some yourself, whether they are rated G or NC-17. But meditation is the best way I've found to feel at home in my experience, which leads to a kind of sustainable satisfaction that can begin to pervade every situation you encounter, whether pleasant or painful. It takes a lot of time to begin to trust that meditation works. The journey of practice provides so many bumps and curves, so many chances to lose and then to recover our trust in the whole process, so we have to remember our long-term view again and again and again.

Interestingly enough, in the Buddha's earliest teachings, when Siddhartha speaks of whether it is possible to truly cultivate your mind like a garden, he tells his students to just trust him. He says, "If it were not possible to cultivate healthy and wholesome qualities of mind, I would not ask you to do so." Usually, in his oral dialogues, Siddhartha demonstrated things that could be verified by lived experience and thoughtful contemplation, and he told anyone who was listening never to take his word for anything. After all, this is generally the best form of teaching: the best teachers provide a supportive framework and timely sparks of inspiration for the student to gain confidence in her own experience. But here, when it comes to our deepest insecurity-our tendency to disbelieve that we can actually change our mind-the Buddha just says, "If you don't trust yourself, then trust me. I wouldn't ask you to practice if you couldn't do this." I always thought this was a very interesting teaching, because it sounds like he is demanding blind faith. Even so, whenever I've felt hopeless and stuck in my practice, or my life, it always helps to think of the encouragement of mentors or genuine heroes who have already cultivated the qualities I'm working to cultivate. As we've said, those people weren't "born this way" (if they were, what use would they be as examples for us?). Rather, they were brave enough and patient enough to slowly develop themselves, to till the fertile soil of their own minds over time.

If we try meditation once and then return to our habitual mode of commuting through objects, looking for something shiny and disposable for our spiritual shopping cart, we'll only feel the same old dissatisfaction when the new method no longer glows. Meditation only works if we give it lots of time. My advice is to practice at least a year, ten minutes each day, and go on at least one retreat during that year before you wonder too much about results. A year is not too much time to invest in your true home. Honestly, a lifetime wouldn't be, either.

Definition Two: Making Friends with Yourself

There is a deeper reason yet, I think, that meditation is hard to engage in, which goes right to the heart of what it means to come home to ourselves. When we meditate, we are engaging in something that for most of us is a completely new style of education. In our society, most fields of learning are about the world of objects, people, and relationships "out there." Most, maybe all, of our formal education is based on understanding objects. When we learn about engineering, or we learn to cook, or we learn painting, we are studying the rules of how the world "out there" operates, how the perceptual or intellectual objects of our experience work together with each other, how these objects can be understood and manipulated. This style of education even influences the way psychology has been traditionally studied in Western culture. Ironically, it is still possible that somebody could earn a Ph.D. in psychology and have mostly gained expertise in the study of other people's minds, or an abstracted mind.

But what about us, the subjects? For many of us, our education is a matter of pride, something that has cost us many years, many resources, and lots of toil. We may know countless facts, we may have fancy degrees or titles, but have we directly studied how our mind perceives, feels, experiences, grasps at, reacts to, and projects onto the world "out there"? It's quite possible that a person has multiple framed diplomas, and still he doesn't know much about his own true home, his heartmind. This can be quite a difficult and embarrassing fact to come to terms with. As a teacher and a student, I know that an educational process is always the hardest when a student feels that the subject at hand is something she is already supposed to know about. We may be adults, but in terms of our direct relationship to our own mind-what you might call our contemplative education-we may have only a kindergarten level of understanding. When we meditate, we have to leave all our diplomas behind for a moment and be willing to go back to an inner kindergarten, to the most basic level of contemplative education. We have to embrace a new kind of subjective learning process, with all its awkwardness and uncertainty, but also with its playfulness, in order to overcome whatever inadequacy we might feel when we realize that we may never have developed the simple skill of being able to spend ten minutes alone with our own mind. After all, kindergarten is supposed to be fun, with graham crackers and apple juice galore.

A second word defining meditation practice, gom, comes from the Tibetan tradition and means something along the lines of "familiarization" or "getting to know." When we meditate, we are becoming familiar with our mind's subjective experience in a direct and intimate way. This definition points again to the idea that when we meditate we are entering an educational realm that is new to us, that we have to take a lot of time and patience to become familiar with.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to say the purpose of meditation is to make friends with yourself. This is not what many people think meditation is all about-many people I talk to seem to think that meditation is about hiring an inner ninja assassin to secretly kill off the thoughts and emotions you no longer want to have. Instead, meditation is actually about befriending our thoughts and emotions, befriending the space of our own awareness. In thinking about this definition, I have often thought about how we feel when we are in the early stages of a new relationship that we're genuinely excited about. It could be a new friend, a new love interest, or an artist, writer, or thinker whose work moves us. Consider the excitement you have waiting for your second encounter with a person, in a situation where the first date went really well. What would happen if the person made a little mistake, like she was fifteen minutes late? Chances are, you would forgive her, and think something like, "Oh, I guess she got caught in traffic," or "Because she is so cool, she probably has an eccentric relationship to the space-time continuum." But if somebody you've known forever, say a spouse, is fifteen minutes late, you can't handle it. And if you yourself-your very oldest and dearest frenemy-should make a mistake, heads will roll.

When he said that meditation was about making friends with yourself, I think Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was basically inviting us, each time we work with meditation, to take the same attitude of curiosity and excitement we would have hanging out with somebody we are really interested in. We need to look at our minds with enough curiosity and friendship to not judge and condemn what we find. This is what it means to get to know ourselves through meditation. It's about accepting your own friend request.

I've noticed again and again that the people who are most successful at sustaining a meditation practice are the ones who are curious, maybe even fascinated, by the process of getting to know their own minds. Of course, we might be worried that this self-fascination could lead to other problems. Unfortunately, contemplative practice often gets dismissed as narcissism or self-indulgence. It's important to be clear that taking time to work with our own mind is not self-obsession. Self-awareness is actually the opposite of self-obsession; it's helpful to everyone around us, and taking time to familiarize ourselves with our own mind is a crucial form of education. Ironically, it's when we don't take time to get to know our own mind that we get obsessed with stuck narratives about "me." In my experience, when we avoid ourselves, that's when we start harming others as well. Self-avoidance is the true self-obsession.


There is a confused belief that meditation is just one thing, just one tool or technique. This leads to disagreements about which approach to meditation is the right one. The Shambhala tradition, as well as the larger Buddhist tradition, has many different techniques of meditation that we learn at various points along the journey. These meditations approach the mind from different directions, all with the two basic purposes stated above: getting to know ourselves and cultivating positive qualities of the mind.


Mindfulness is the foundation, the ground-level tool we cultivate in meditation. In the Shambhala tradition, the main form of mindfulness meditation is often called by its Sanskrit name, shamatha, which means something like "developing peace" or "calm abiding." Most, but not all, forms of this mindfulness-awareness meditation involve using the breath as an anchor for our attention in the present moment. These techniques allow the mind to settle into the present, to recognize thoughts and recurrent patterns of thought, without getting caught up in them. Again, none of these mindfulness-awareness techniques are about stopping the mind from thinking. The key skills developed through mindfulness-awareness techniques are (1) direct recognition of our thoughts and feelings, as well as direct recognition of when we get caught up in recurrent inner narratives or story lines, (2) an ability to deal nonreactively with space and boredom, and (3) a basic attitude of familiarity and deep friendliness with our true home.

The ancient words that translate as "mindfulness" have both a precise and a much broader meaning. In the precise sense, mindfulness refers to the development of a particular mental muscle group, muscles that operate to direct and deepen one's attention to a chosen object in the present moment. Practicing mindfulness is how we can decide what to focus on and what to be with, choosing among the many different sense perceptions, thoughts, memories, plans, and feelings that populate any given present moment. Mindfulness is what is allowing you to place your attention on reading this page right now. In Buddhist teachings on cognition, it is said that, in each moment, mindfulness can take only one object at a time. Our experience of simultaneity-of many things happening at once-is actually an approximation of many tiny moments of experience happening closely together. Exercising the muscle of mindfulness allows us to gain some control over where we place our attention at each moment.

Awareness is the corollary to mindfulness. It is like the involuntary muscle of our mind, like our heart or smooth muscle. As mindfulness helps us to place our attention more and more on our actual experience in the present moment, we begin to become more aware of the general context in which we are placing our attention. Mindfulness is what focuses your attention on the words in this book, while awareness is what keeps you cognizant of the environment you are reading in. And awareness is also what notices thoughts and emotions; it especially notices when we get lost in thought, disembodied within our physical environment.

Contemplative or Analytic Meditation

Some meditation techniques direct the thinking process to develop insight and clarity in a particular area. This could be as mundane as contemplating what you want to do for a living, or it could be a deeper contemplation, such as coming to terms with the truth of death and impermanence, or else contemplating the meaning of interdependence. Contemplative meditation teaches us to use the thinking and analytical mind skillfully.

Compassion Meditation

Compassion meditations, such as metta (lovingkindness) or tonglen (a Tibetan compassion practice) work to generate empathy, and to help us to develop caring and nurturing attitudes toward ourselves and others. These techniques prepare us for the difficult work of being present in human relationships, which will be discussed in the book's second section.

Visualization (Imagination) and Mantra Meditation

Visualization meditation works with archetypal forms that represent the most heroic and holistic qualities of the mind, such as a fully realized experience of compassion, wisdom, or skillful effectiveness. In visualization or imagination meditations we bring to life these archetypes in order to gain confidence that we also possess these qualities. These are primarily practiced in Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhist meditations, although they also form a crucial aspect of compassion meditations. Visualization will be discussed in chapter 11.

Meditations on the Nature of Mind

Within the Shambhala and Tibetan traditions, as well as within Zen, there are several bodies of teachings on looking directly at the nature of awakened mind, and learning to rest within our own unconditioned awareness, to fully come home to awareness in the present moment. These increasingly subtle meditations focus on accommodating any experience of thought or emotion that could possibly arise, without fixating on or rejecting the experience.

In the Shambhala teachings, one such style of meditation is called windhorse, which has the direct intention of fostering confidence in the pure energy of emotions, without fixation, so that the wisdom of our emotional states can be used skillfully to help ourselves and others.

* * *

No matter what meditation technique is employed, the purpose of all Buddhist meditations is to get to know our own mind more deeply and to cultivate the tools to actually be at home in our own experience. We do this so that we can begin to look directly at the habits and patterns that keep us caught up in commute.

Copyright © 2015 by Ethan Nichtern

Foreword copyright © 2015 by Sharon Salzberg