Mahamudra Meditation Techniques
When is the last time you sat and thought about nothing?
We read a lot in the media today about the importance of reducing stress and the many benefits of being mindful in the present. Some people achieve this by taking a deep breath. Some embrace the stillness through the movement of yoga. And some of us work on quieting the mind through mindfulness meditations.
Buddhist meditation, or Right Mindfulness, is an essential practice of Buddhism and one of the steps along The Eightfold Path.
The nature of the mind is like that of a monkey, Buddha says. It hops and leaps from thought to thought like a capuchin in the trees. To let go of our monkey-mind and eventually obtain Buddha nature, we must get to know our mind, and teach it to relax into itself.
There are many different meditation practices from which one can choose, but in the Tibetan Buddhist school of Kagyu, the traditional practice is called Mahamudra.
The Great Seal
Mahamudra combines the Sanskrit words maha, or “great” and mudra, which means “seal” or “symbol.” The Great Seal is an emblem of emptiness and space — a concept that our minds can hold everything and nothing at the same time. This meditation practice began in India and spread through Tibet before being introduced to the rest of the world. In Tibetan Buddhism, Mahamudra is considered the highest form of meditation.
It is through this powerful meditation practice that one can obtain a luminous awareness of reality and a clear understanding of one’s mind. Though the path may be rocky at first, through continued practice, meditation will become more familiar, the path to relaxation a little more worn and easy to reach.
Following this path regularly will help lead you to enlightenment.
Want a charming visual concept of the process? Check out this short animation created by an unnamed internet bodhisattva.
Begin by Being Still
The basic concept of Mahamudra is to cultivate a mind that is joyful, calm, and in the present moment. You want to give your mind space to really see itself and understand reality at its basic level. We do this both through focus, and stillness.
“If you are quiet enough, you will hear the flow of the universe. You will feel its rhythm. Go with this flow. Happiness lies ahead. Meditation is key.” – Buddha
Everyone’s path to enlightenment is different because everyone’s essential mind is different. As you learn more about Mahamudra, sit and digest what mindfulness means to you. Personalize the experience for yourself by choosing a mantra or a focus, and be prepared to sit.
The most important thing is to be still. To sit and rest the mind and give it a break from thoughts, and plans, and disturbing emotions.
Like any practice, sitting calmly in meditation will take time, repetition, and failure. Don’t be discouraged if some days sitting in silence seems harder than others — accept your practice for what it is and keep trying.
When we take these moments to gaze into our minds, we must understand the wisdom in its emptiness. It is in this wisdom that we recognize our connection to all things. In the emptiness of our minds, we make room for insights that light the way along our personal Buddhist path to happiness.
We also allow ourselves a moment of rest. During a normal day, while we’re simply just exiting, we are constantly bombarded with judgments and thoughts. We succumb to feelings of anxiety and pain and yearn for a moment of rest from the noise inside of our heads.
Through meditation, we give ourselves the gift of respite. When we quiet the mind, we experience openness and peacefulness that will ease our suffering, even if only for a few moments. As we continue to practice, those moments become longer and longer, and easier to reach – like a well-worn path along a tranquil pond.
“Let go and rest naturally”
Here are a few things to consider as you begin a Mahamudra meditation practice:
- ● The mind, by nature, is an empty vessel of awareness.
- ● Our thoughts, feelings, and fixations are obstacles to observing an empty mind
- ● Your goal is to clear your mind of these thoughts. You may notice them, but do not cling to them. Let them pass
Tilopa, the first teacher of Mahamudra, was a 10th-century Kagya guru. His instructions to his student, Naropa, present the basic philosophy of Mahamudra meditation.
The whole text, available online, reads like a beautiful existential poem:
Don’t control. Let go and rest naturally.
Let what binds you go and freedom is not in doubt.
When you look into space, seeing stops.
Likewise, when mind looks at mind,
The flow of thinking stops
and you come to the deepest awakening.
The 2 Mahamudra Meditation Techniques
Mahamudra meditation consists of two techniques: Samatha meditation and Vipassana meditation.
Samatha Mahamudra is the practice of emptying your mind through concentration. In this practice, we work on letting go of thoughts and clearing out other daily noise. At times, your focus will be honed by reciting a mantra — it’s almost akin to using a white noise machine to sleep, the soft repetitive chanting drowns out the other chatter from our monkey mind.
As we begin to gaze into the depths of ourselves, beyond this chatter, we start to clear the junk. We stack the boxes of our attachments and put them out to the curb for pickup. It is within this new empty space that we are able to see the universe clearly and open ourselves up to insight and to peace.
Techniques for Practicing Samatha Mahamudra Meditation:
- Sit comfortably. You don’t want your sitting style to be distracted. Use a chair or cushion of your choosing.
- Keep your back upright and straight so that you can more freely release your breath.
- Sit in lotus position if possible. Otherwise, arrange your body in a comfortable but alert way. Take stock of how your body feels and enter a space of awareness.
- Choose the focus of your practice: Options include counting your breaths, reciting a mantra, focusing your eyes or attention on a statue of a Buddha or a spot on the wall, or meditating on a question posed by yourself or your teacher. Your soft focus will help you to empty your mind of all other thoughts.
- When first beginning, try sitting for five or ten minutes, and increase your meditation time as you grow in your practice.
- While holding your focus in your minds-eye, remember to resist the urge to think or concentrate too hard. Your goal is to allow your mind to be at rest and thus allow it to exist at its most natural state.
- Allow the meditation to be difficult at times and to notice your difficulty without judgement. The key is to continue your practice, day by day, and strengthen your ability to calm your mind by becoming more and more familiar with its true nature.
- With practice, you will settle into a meditation ritual like a body sinking into a mattress at the end of a long day.
There are many mantras you can use during your Samatha practice.
Two mantras used frequently in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition are:
You can even use affirmations of your own making if that is more your style.
The second Mahamudra meditation technique is Vipassana. The practice of Vipassana trains the mind to see things as they truly are in the present moment. It is considered the meditation of Insight.
Instead of focusing on a mantra or otherwise concentrating on something, we are observing our thoughts, surroundings, and feelings. But we are doing so without judgment. Instead, we are attempting to see beyond them. To abandon the concepts and label’s we’ve assigned to them. We practice seeing them objectively, seeing clearly what motivates the thoughts or from where they are arising.
It is through this clarity of thought and practiced awareness that we are able to connect with our sense of unity with all living beings, and our compassionate, Buddha nature.
The main difference between Samatha and Vipassana is that in the former you are focusing on something, a mantra, for example, to clear the mind of clutter and to learn it’s nature, and in the later, you are not focusing on any one particular thing. You are instead training your mind to allow things to be as they are.
Techniques for Practicing Vipassana Mahamudra Meditation:
- Sit comfortably. Use a chair or cushion of your choosing.
- Make sure to keep your back straight and upright, but not rigid. You want to be relaxed but solid. Sit in lotus position if possible. Place your hands on your lap facing up.
- Close your eyes and allow your mind to be aware of your current feelings, surroundings, etc.
- Some find that focusing on the rhythm of their natural breathing will help one settle into the session.
- As you observe, detach from all concepts and labels and let things just exist in that space.
- Let emotions or feelings of uncomfortableness be what they are and pass you by. Some meditation masters liken this experience to seeing your thoughts as passing vapor. Let the thoughts float by, and resist the urge to grab at them for closer examination.
- 7. Listen to the energies of your body and allow your feelings and thoughts happen as they do. As you settle into this silence, you will reach peacefulness and calm.
Clarity & Understanding
Whether you start with Samatha or Vipassana, remember to be gentle with yourself — especially in the beginning, when the chatter of your mind is loudest and most greedy for attention. No matter how long you’ve been practicing Mahamudra, you will find at times that your mind wanders or your mantras slip. Acknowledge that it happened and let it go — continue your practice and simply stay present.
The purpose of Mahamudra meditation is to give your mind clarity and to grow your understanding of your reality and your connection to all things. Eventually, this clarity and acceptance will guide you closer to enlightenment.
However, you need not wait for Nirvana to experience benefit from a meditation practice. As you sit on your cushion each day, you will learn how to turn the volume down on your incessant thoughts, fears, and the desires of your mind, and in that space, you will experience a comforting peace.
Give yourself this gift of stillness and let your mind simply be.