An Interview with Lama Palden

Editor’s Note: Lama Palden will be teaching a four-day non-residential retreat from February 1-4 on Mahamudra meditation and liberating emotions. I spoke with her by phone about the special usefulness for Westerners of this profound meditation practice.

– Jane Brunette

Q: What is the benefit to a modern person of focusing on Mahamudra meditation?

Lama Palden: The 16th Karmapa said that Mahamudra is a good practice for the West because it is instantaneous — on the spot. We have very challenging, busy lives with a lot to attend to and this practice can be done anytime, anywhere. It’s not elaborate — it depends only on the mind and there aren’t rituals associated with it. It’s all about working with awareness and resting in awareness.

Mahamudra is a step-by-step process, and concentration is the key element for engaging with the Mahamudra path. The stronger the shamatha (concentration), the more we can be present and rest in awareness. Then it is possible to truly engage with the insight aspect, the Vipashyana aspect of Mahamudra.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on emotion in this retreat?

Humans are emotional beings. When difficult things happen in our lives, things get more charged. With all that is going on in the world, lots of people feel that charge right now, and this is an opportunity that you can’t really turn down. Since ignoring emotions has unpleasant repercussions, transforming or allowing them to liberate is incredibly freeing. Their essence is wisdom and this is experience in Mahamudra meditation.

When one can truly engage in the concentration and insight practice, it becomes really interesting working with the emotions. We can fully be with the vividness — with the whole display of feelings sites and sounds — and in terms of emotions, the feelings, sensations and thoughts that go along with them. Mahamudra helps us learn to rest in the true nature of our emotions, the luminous clarity and emptiness — present open, nonjudging and aware.

We can make time in our lives to meditate on Mahamudra, and as we get better at it, we can also do this meditation on the spot by opening to the feelings and experiencing the sensations without judgment, without thoughts of past or future. We simply feel the emotion in the moment and feel into the most skillful way to meet it.

Q: Are there special challenges to working with emotions in particular?

We all get caught in different ways — we have our specialties. Some people are most often caught by thought, some by sensation, and some by emotions. Emotions are stubborn because they are related with patterns that go way back in our history, both in this life and in other lives. That’s why they are so strong — because we’ve been engaging in certain habitual patterns for a very long time.

The challenge with emotions is that they can be so vivid, clear and strong that we believe they’re real, when really all they are is an experience in our awareness. Once we see that they’re just our experience, we can meet them in whatever way we choose. We can step back and meet them with loving kindness. In Mahamudra, we inquire into them with awareness, then the strength of the emotions can actually help us gain concentration, have insight, and the wisdom essence of the emotion reveals itself.

In the retreat, we will be doing both Mahamudra inquiry in the meditation sessions and also some inquiry work in triads. The triad work is a bit different from the inquiry in the meditation sessions, and can help facilitate your Mahamudra meditation to open.

I’ve found that these short retreats focusing on Mahamudra can be very beneficial. It’s amazing to me to see the progress in shamatha with people at Sukhasiddhi through training and practicing together. There’s real power in doing this in a group.

Lama Palden will teach a four-day, non-residential Mahamudra retreat at Sukhasiddhi, February 1-4. Register to reserve your place at the retreat!